What Does It Mean to Be a Good Boss?

Fortunately, the field of Leadership Development has become more overt in discussions about the obligations that leaders have to human beings in the workplace as a core component of leadership. However, it is still rare to see training programs or curricula that take a clear value-based position on the accountability that leaders have for the well being of the people in their departments, divisions, organizations, etc. The concept of servant leadership probably comes the closest, but it is surprisingly rare in practice.

Leadership is a privilege that comes with a host of responsibilities that go far beyond hitting financial targets or executing profitable strategies. In fact, I would argue that the greatest challenge of leadership (and greatest responsibility) is related to the impact one has on the people you lead, not on the extent to which you achieve financial or operational or strategic goals. Of course the long-term viability of any leader requires the achievement of financial and operational objectives. The underlying sustainability of any organization depends on financial strength, sound strategic thinking, competitiveness, etc. However, ensuring the well being of the people in an organization includes a moral imperative and provides a moral victory that is qualitatively different than it is for business metrics. The profoundly good news is that leaders who understand and deliver on their moral obligations generally benefit handsomely relative to financial and operational outcomes as well.

I have made several posts that address the people side of leadership such as Your Business is a People Business, Be Successful by Supporting Others, and Don’t Forget the “Human” in Human Resources among others, but this is the first essay in which I argue that an obligation of leadership is the well-being of those in your charge.

Obviously, many organizations and many senior managers do not operate on such a premise. In the extreme, organizations and bosses manipulate through fear, pit individuals against one another, and treat employees as disposable assets. Ironically, fear can be a very effective short-term motivator, but it is a poor long-term strategy and it certainly does not support the well being of people in an organization. “Leadership” through power and control is, by definition, self-limiting, because it suffocates the organic contributions of those being controlled and it effectively snuffs out risk-taking, creativity, and teamwork.

So, what does a really good boss look like? If we first answer this question through the lens of the servant leadership model mentioned previously, it is helpful to quote Robert Greenleaf, who coined the phrase, “leader as servant” in his famous 1970 essay, The Servant Leader, in which he describes the difference between someone who is a servant first rather than a leader first.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Greenleaf powerfully and effectively addresses the moral foundation of what makes a great boss. In addition to this foundational frame of reference as servant leader, however, I would add that a really good boss is one who is honest, consistent and predictable; who understands the politics of organizations, but is not political him or herself; who is a source of stability and sanity even in the face of craziness; who provides tools and resources so that subordinates are more likely to be successful; who encourages risk taking and allows the freedom to fail; who has a healthy sense of self, but is not driven by his or her own ego; who fairly holds subordinates accountable; who supports and defends subordinates when they make mistakes; who listens more than he or she talks; who praises publicly and disciplines/coaches privately; who is respectful; who is open to feedback and even to being challenged; who simply does the right thing even when other paths are easier or less risky. Of course no one can be all of these things all the time, but leaders who strive to behave in these ways tend to be the best bosses.

Anyone who has even modest experience in a leadership role knows that one reason the obligations of leadership can be so challenging is that the choices and behaviors associated with being a “good boss” or good leader are not always the choices and behaviors that are honored within organizations or that will lead to immediate benefit for the leader/boss him or herself. To the contrary, putting people first as a moral imperative can actually result in short-term negative outcomes for leaders with the courage to do what is right. Fortunately, leadership is a long-term proposition, with twists and turns and course changes along the way and it is the entire journey that matters. With experience comes wisdom and confidence in certain truths. One truth about which I am certain after more than a half century of life and 37 years in work environments is that people are more important than achievements or possessions.

One’s legacy as a great boss or great person will not come from how many quarters you beat sales targets or how many weekends you worked. It will certainly not come from how big your bonus is or how many employees you devastated through public ridicule or how many low performers you fired. A legacy worth having will be based on the number of low performers that a boss saved. It will be based on the number of subordinates he or she coached to promotions. It will be based on the employees who were supported through personal and professional crises to survive and ultimately thrive. A legacy worth having is based on the individuals whom a boss encouraged and mentored, despite their fears and apprehensions, to pursue goals that seemed unattainable. In short, such a legacy is based on the extent to which a leader impacts the well being of those in his or her charge; the extent to which those individuals can say they are better off because they had the boss they had. To be clear, this is not about being “liked” as a boss, although good bosses and leaders are often likable. Being a good boss is, as Greenleaf noted many years ago, about the benefit you confer on those you lead.

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