Being the boss is a pretty good feeling for most people. Those of you who own your business or have management authority draw a certain comfort from calling the shots and being able to tell subordinates what to do. The boss usually gets paid more than the people s/he supervises, and has more leeway in determining when and how to do the work that needs to be done. In large companies, there may be extra perks as well, like a company car, club memberships and travel opportunities.
Being the boss also carries special burdens. You get the blame when things go
Sometimes the boss has the unpleasant duty of telling people that they have to
shape up. Worse, the boss may have to fire them when they don’t. Worst of all,
you may have to let some people go even though they didn’t do anything wrong
and may be good workers – even friends – simply because business conditions
make it necessary to trim the payroll. Being the boss usually entails
longer-than-normal working hours, and it’s not always possible to stop working
or at least thinking about work after you go home at night. Being the boss is
So being the boss has its plusses and minuses. Good bosses tend to find a lot
more plusses than minuses in their job. Bad bosses tend to be grumpy because
they find the minuses outweigh the plusses.
What’s it mean to be a good boss? To my way of thinking, the simplest
definition means finding the appropriate balance between the needs of the
business and the needs of the employees you supervise. These are not mutually
The needs of the business must be first and foremost in the mind of any boss,
in my opinion. If your business doesn’t succeed, the people who work for you
will be out of their jobs. No matter how well you treat them, no matter how
much they may like you, you’re not doing them any favors by putting their needs
above those of the business if it leads to the business no longer being able to
However, some bosses go so far overboard looking out for the bottom line of
their businesses that they ride roughshod over their workers. This makes them
bad bosses. Bosses who treat their people badly are hurting their businesses
more than helping them. This may not be apparent when business is booming and a
company is making money, even though employee morale may be low. But it usually
comes back to bite the company when a downturn comes. Like
Even when business is good, a happy and motivated workforce will make even more
money for the company than one that is demoralized and just going through the
motions. Bad bosses increase employee turnover, and turnover exacts a severe
cost. Each new person costs thousands of dollars to hire and train, and it may
take months or even years for a new employee to become fully
So what’s it take to be a good boss? In my estimation, the best bosses are
leaders rather than managers. The difference has to do with a keen observation
that I’ve heard expressed by various business experts – managers gain power
from above, leaders from below.
The fact that you own your business or have a managerial position gives you the
authority to tell people what to do, but it doesn’t guarantee maximum effort.
People will perform tasks assigned by a manager because they have to. They’ll
do it for a leader because they want to. The leader has a knack for convincing
them that it’s in their best interest to perform to the max. Sometimes they’ll
even go all out just to please a leader who is particularly revered, just like
a child wanting to make Mom and Dad proud of him.
All of which begs the question, what makes for a good leader? Many books have
been written about this subject, and I can’t hope to explain it all in a few
sentences. But here are some elements of leadership that I believe are
Never ask a subordinate to do something you can’t or won’t do yourself. Leaders
project confidence that stems from knowing what they are talking about and how
to do the job they ask others to do. In the construction trades, this usually
isn’t a problem, since most contractors, project managers, supervisors and
foremen rose through the trade ranks. Occasionally, you find some large company
sending some recent college graduate to supervise people in the field, seldom
with good results.
Be open to advice from below. People who are on the front lines, whether it’s
your crews in the field or office staff processing the paperwork, often have
the best feel for how to accomplish their work with greatest efficiency.
Sometimes their ideas are unworkable or cost too much, but even if only one
suggestion out of 10 pans out, they’re worth listening to.
Give credit freely. One of the fastest ways for a boss to become disliked is to
take excessive credit for ideas or work contributed by subordinates. Top-notch
quarterbacks always pay tribute to their receivers and offensive lines. Be sure
to single out every employee who had a hand in a job well
Take the heat. A good leader never passes the buck. One of the best examples of
this comes from the historical record:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory
foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time
and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air
(corps) and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any
blame or fault attaches to that attempt, it is mine alone.”
This message was composed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on the day of the D-Day
invasion, June 6, 1944. It’s what he would have said had the invasion failed.
Happily, he instead broadcast a different message to the troops and the public
back home, announcing a successful landing on the beaches of Normandy. This
note of failure, however, reveals much about the character of this great leader
who subsequently became president of the United States. If the D-Day invasion
had not succeeded, there would have been plenty of blame to go around since
various people would have fed Ike wrong information or fallen short in military
performance. Instead, he chose to take it all upon his shoulders, and this
never-delivered message stands as a prime example of leadership.
Praise in public, criticize in private. When someone does something well, say
it out loud, or put it in writing for the entire company to see. When it comes
time to correct an employee, do it one-on-one, and keep it between the two of
you. If it’s a serious mistake that others need to be know about in order to
avoid a repeat, focus on the incident, not the person who made the mistake, who
should remain anonymous in any memos written about the
Keep doors open. A complete open-door policy is impractical in a very large
organization. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company can’t very well invite tens of
thousands of employees to barge into his office whenever they feel like it. But
if that CEO is a good leader, s/he’ll have systems in place to assure that the
concerns and ideas of even the lowliest employees have a way of filtering all
the way to the top.
There are no Fortune 500 companies in your field that I’m aware of. Most of you
reading this work for businesses small enough that it is possible for the
owner/CEO to speak directly with every employee from time to time. I’ve noticed
that in the best small and medium-size companies I’ve visited, the highest
ranking executives tend to know the names of all the people working in the
organization, even those who drive trucks or toil in warehouses. While showing
me around, frequently, the big shots will stop to chat about work and personal
matters with someone far down the corporate ladder. I’ve also noticed a
correlation between this behavior and companies that are the best in their
Don’t get too close. Leaders need to be friendly and accessible to the people
they supervise, but it’s awkward to become best buddies with them. This is why
the U.S. military discourages off-duty fraternizing between officers and
enlisted personnel. They know that severe conflicts can arise when someone is
called upon to put a best friend in harm’s way. You’re not dealing with
life-and-death matters in your business, but even appearances of favoritism can
reduce a boss’ effectiveness with the rest of the staff.
Cut some slack with personal issues. A good boss will do whatever s/he can to
help out employees dealing with personal or family problems. We live in a world
filled with working moms, people taking care of elderly parents or faced with
various other difficulties outside of work. This doesn’t excuse people from doing
the job they are paid to do, but if there is any way to accommodate them with
time off, flexible hours or other considerations consistent with company
policy, it will pay off in the long run.
Keep in mind that you can’t show favoritism. If you make special allowances for
one employee, you need to do it for everyone in similar circumstances. And you
have to do it in a way that doesn’t impact business performance. All that being
said, good leaders understand that cutting some slack on occasion usually
results in those people paying back with extra effort at other times.
Smart Business: Are You a Good Boss?
February 1, 2009