Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bosses Day

Today is National Bosses Day. This week we’ll see articles on “The Worst Bosses” and radio shows will invite callers to tell tales about their bad bosses.

I’ve been working since I was 15 so I’ve had a boss every day for 43 years. For most of my career I’ve been blessed with amazing bosses who showed me how to be a good leader. They forgave me, gave me second and third chances, and offered me opportunities to try things I was not qualified to do but that I grew to learn and love.

For the last 30 years I’ve been a boss and I borrow from those good bosses. Along the way though, I’ve had some bad ones--men and women who made the workplace scary and uncomfortable-- but they taught me too. They are my “Don’t” examples.

There was one who didn’t speak to anyone before noon; one who said, “You’re stupid” to anyone in front of everyone, and one who put on her make-up in staff meetings. On my best days I aspire to be like “M” who taught me to, “Remove fear from the workplace” and on my not so good days I try not to be like “D” who drove around the building at the end of the day to make sure that all of the window shades were within a quarter inch of the sill.

But while we’ll laugh about the “Can you believe it?” bad bosses on Bosses Day, what we are quiet about is being a bad boss. You rarely see the articles in which bosses tell about the times that they blew it. And anyone who’s ever been a boss has blown it more than once. The truth is that if you’ve been a boss (committee chair, troop leader, coach, supervisor,) you did some things that were not so great or you did something that you later realized was bad boss behavior.

At some point in our lives each of us occupies a leadership role and when we blow it our mistakes are only magnified by our level of authority. I say “when” and not “if” because it turns out that we are painfully, excruciatingly human. Leadership is too complex for perfection. The best you can pray for is feedback, self-awareness and willingness to change.

Over the years I got a lot of mileage out of the story about the boss who was obsessed with window shades, but recently when I saw myself rearranging another person’s work, I thought, “There it is, my version of window shades”; it was the same naked impulse to control.

Leadership is about courage so here’s a challenge for Bosses Day: don’t talk about the worst boss you ever had, instead talk about your worst day as a boss. No one is exempt. Even Steve Jobs was bad. The recent stories about him tell how he screamed expletives at employees and humiliated subordinates. Yeah, it’s APPLE, but that’s still bad boss behavior.

It is about finding a middle ground. I cringe about the times that I cared too much about someone’s personal life and about the times when I didn’t care enough. Our best learning doesn’t come from what someone else does, but rather from what we do—even if we’re not yet able to change it.

So now, on most days, I say to myself, “Life is too short and karma too real; just don’t be the crazy boss.”

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