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Stop waiting to be led: get on with leading! If only I had a great boss.....

posted 8 Oct 2019, 20:08 by Michelle Stewart

 “A truly great boss is hard to find, difficult to part with and impossible to forget.”

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“A boss who believes in you and trusts you will make a huge difference in your career.”

 

If only I had a great boss!

One of the most unhelpful leadership concepts going around is the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect boss. As the real-life quotes above state (similar memes are regularly posted on LinkedIn and other forums), the Perfect Boss believes in you, trusts you and supports you. The Perfect Boss is wise, has great values, draws the best from you and invests in you. The Perfect Boss is there to catch you when you fall. Strongly implied in writings about the Perfect Boss is that we all deserve one and that when we find this man or woman we should sit at their feet for as long as we can. I have met many people over the years who are searching for the Perfect Boss. Then they find these individuals, they rave about them for a while, only to be disappointed. Undeterred, they start the search again. It’s interesting that so many people look outside of themselves for the perfect leader, an observation I will return to.

In my view much of what is written about the Perfect or Ideal Boss is wrong and unhelpful. It is based on premises that if adopted, will hinder rather than accelerate our growth as people and as leaders.

Firstly, the notion of the perfect boss is premised on an idealised view of leadership and what a leader does. The perfect human does not exist so neither does the perfect boss. It’s nice to believe that your dream boss is out there, and even more enticing to believe you deserve to report to such a person, but it’s a fantasy. Every individual you work for, or with, has flaws. Each one of us comes with strengths and weaknesses, even the greats. Winston Churchill drank too much and was a womaniser; Mother Theresa could be intransigent, myopic and overly demanding; Mahatma Gandhi treated his wife poorly; Nelson Mandela often failed as a parent. And let’s not start on the less than edifying off field behaviour of some of our sporting greats. I am not gratuitously rubbing the sheen off these and other amazing people in our lives – my own failures and flaws are myriad – I am simply pointing to the obvious fact that great leaders are great despite their often profound flaws, not because they meet some abstract leadership ideal.

Secondly, an idealised view of leadership can have the unintended consequence of creating a two-tiered view of leadership. That is, there is “Big Leadership” (Leadership with a capital ‘L’), which is the province of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Sporting Greats, of the Churchills, Gandhis and Mandelas of this world, then there is the rest of us. We don’t lead, we follow or just muddle about. Yet in reality, society only functions due to thousands of acts of “small leadership” (leadership with a lowercase ‘l’): the unpaid sports coach who guides and mentors a struggling team, the volunteer fire brigade members, the retired adult who safely shepherds children across a school crossing, the social worker who stands by an abused child, the anonymous public servant who acts to ensure a needy person gets the support they are entitled to, or the tradie who charges nothing for fixing the single parent’s faulty appliance. ‘Big L’ Leadership stands out, it changes history, starts and stops wars and pushes through nation building projects. Big Leadership demands to be noticed. But it is ‘small l’ leadership that makes our society function day to day in a humane way. Most of us, myself included, are ‘small l’ rather than ‘Big L’ leaders. Yet if we everyday leaders aimed to get just a little better at what we do week to week and month to month, not only would the world be a better place, but perhaps we would not yearn so deeply for the Perfect Boss/Politician/Business Leader…

Thirdly the search for the perfect boss encourages us to look outwardly rather than inwardly for leadership. Dee Hock, the founder of Visa Card, created a profoundly simple, non-ideological leadership model that has the capacity to revolutionise lives. Hock believed that there are four leadership tasks in descending order of importance: 1. Lead and manage yourself; 2. Lead and manage upwards (your boss, if you have one); 3. Lead and manage sideways to your peers (those of equal status but who do not report to you); and: 4. Lead and manage downward (your team).

Hock writes:

“The first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self; one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words and acts.  It is a complex, never-ending, incredibly difficult, oft-shunned task.”

Leadership starts not with the perfect boss but that imperfect person that is you and me. I have come across so many people over the years who have found their life’s purpose in finding fault. They find fault in everything from their boss, to their staff, their peers, governments, society, the courts and the school system, but rarely in themselves. The hardest person in your life to lead and manage is you. Yet if you and I seek to make a positive impact on the world, it is with ourselves that we should start. Its easy to be a top-flight employee if you have a top rank boss: everything falls into place. But it’s under bad or ineffective leadership that your character grows and personal resolve firms. Paradoxically, working under poor leadership makes us adept at making positive and needed outcomes happen despite, not because of, the traits of those above us.

The final flaw in the Perfect Boss model is so obvious that I am surprised more people have not pointed it out. Simply put, millions of people do not have a formal boss – so there is no point in them waiting around for someone up the hierarchy to affirm and support them. Think of it: your local doctor, lawyer, medical specialist or surgeon is just as likely to be self-employed or be an equal partner in a practice than to report to someone further up the hierarchy; the same for plumbers, non-executive company directors, freelance web designers or the wedding photographer down the road. Small business owners are typically their own CEO/MD and, if incorporated, a director of the company through which they run their business. Personally, I have not had an employer or boss for twenty plus years. For those in the circumstances I describe, there is no such thing as working for the “boss who believes in you and trusts you (and) will make a huge difference in your career.”  This is why Dee Hock’s insight is so powerful: the place to start is not with your boss’s strengths or flaws, but with your own character, temperament, behaviours and ethics. This does not mean that business owners and the self employed do not have mentors and those they admire in their lives, its just that they cannot rely on others to tell them what to do, pay them if they don’t earn enough money that week, or to protect them when they make a mistake.

In summary, wherever you are and whoever you work for, don’t waste time waiting around the perfect boss. Conversely, if you work for someone particularly uninspiring or unethical, seriously consider biting the bullet and moving on. Whatever our circumstances, its incumbent on us all to stop waiting to be led - and get on with leading.

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Books, articles and talks about leadership should be ruthlessly sorted into two piles: those that are insightful and make us think and those that don’t. The former should be put in the “go back to” pile while the latter are best trashed. Which pile this article belongs in is for the reader to decide!

Philip Pogson FAICD, Director, The Leading Partnership 

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