A couple summers ago, the movie Horrible Bosses was a financial and critical success at the box office. It was a dark comedy that portrayed three bosses who took their “boss-ness” to the extreme. It exceeded financial expectations in part because so many people could relate to it. Most of us have had a boss that has “reached the level of their incompetence” (The Peter Principle). We’ve had our moments when we’ve thought, “My life would be easier if my boss was not in it.” I’ve had a few of those bosses and I’ve also been fortunate to work with some excellent bosses. I’ve noticed one big difference between the two.
I’ve worked in entry level jobs where both bosses were micro managers who watched over my work and knew exactly what I was doing and when I was doing it. One boss I enjoyed working with, the other I didn’t. What was the difference, since both were micro managers?
My horrible boss had been with the company for over two decades and wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. One day a fellow employee stopped by my office to drop off a file folder for me to work on. The second he stepped in the door, the boss appears looking over his shoulder saying, “What is that file and what are you doing with it?” I was tempted to say at that moment, “It’s the nuclear bomb codes and we’re plotting to set one off at noon.” But I refrained. By that time, I admit, my attitude was pretty poor.
Lurking and readiness to pounce was my horrible boss’ way of life. So were the lack of clear expectations. I never knew what my target was except when I didn’t reach it. I was chastised for not reaching a goal I didn’t know existed. My one on one meetings with the boss were a laundry list of the areas I was falling short in my performance. I’ve since realized that this approach was part of the boss’ strategy to keep employees off balance so that their days are marked by fear, in the hope that they will fall in line. And for those that did, they became the boss’ favorites. The day I left the job and the boss was a relief. This boss’ leadership philosophy was, “Your success is my threat.”
My excellent boss was a striking contrast. This boss met with me regularly. My first meeting was a “get to know you” session in which I was listened to as I told my story and background. The boss did the same. We met regularly and sometimes, just met for the purpose of having fun. We played video games and talked life in general. Other times we went over my target and expectations of where I needed to be in my performance. The boss regularly said, “I will do whatever I can to help you get there.” I was publically praised when my goals were met. In that environment, team members willingly helped each other and none were considered favorites. This boss supported me to the next level bosses. The day I left, the boss was visibly sad but wished me well. This boss’ leadership philosophy was, “Your success is my success.”
What was the difference? The emotional security of the leader. Horrible boss was emotionally insecure and ruled by fear. Excellent boss was secure and not afraid of each team member’s success and encouraged it.
Leadership expert, John Maxwell, in his now classic, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership talks about “The Law of Empowerment” in which he says that only secure leaders are able to give power away. “Leading well is not about enriching yourself – it’s about empowering others.” (Page 146). It’s a true counter-intuitive principle that when we give power away and others succeed, we become indispensable to the organization.
As leaders, what is it like to be on our team? If we could hear the thoughts of our team members, what would we find them saying to themselves about our leadership?
Some bosses are horrible because they are so insecure they can’t give power away or stand it when others succeed. The empowering leaders among us give us a boost and help us do our jobs with excellence. That’s the kind of creative leader that makes a positive difference in our lives and in the world. I want to be that kind of leader. And so do you.
What did your empowering bosses do to ensure your success?