Several years back, M. David Dealy and I wrote the book Defining the Really Great Boss. I thought about it recently after having several conversations with some highly respected business owners and managers. A common theme these folks shared is that it is getting harder to find competent people to lead others within their organization. It got me thinking once again about what we learned in putting the book together.
From the beginning of the process, we discovered that leadership was a lot like Bigfoot, whose footprints are everywhere but is nowhere to be seen. Thousands of empirical investigations on leadership have been conducted in the past decades; and yet no clear and unequivocal understanding exists as to what distinguishes effective from ineffective leaders.
Interestingly, when we first started digging through the research, it became abundantly clear to us that a great boss is not ultimately defined by their charisma or a back-slapping approach to getting things done. Surely the ability to communicate well and inspire others has its place. Still, rah-rah speeches and feel-good motivational quotes only go so far. Enthusiasm with no backbone will eventually leave folks hungry again for something else. So, what was that something else?
As we moved forward and surveyed dozens of managers and leaders of Fortune 500 companies, some major themes did begin to emerge. Five in particular stood out. Allow me to share them here.
#1 A Great Boss Does the Right Thing for the Right Reason
There are two elements here. The first one is action. We learned very quickly that when a boss makes a decision—whether it is a good one, a marginal one, or even one that leads to a lousy outcome—the respect level for that same boss always went up. Nothing is worse, it seems, than a boss who can’t decide. Not doing anything is the fastest route to failure.
The second element is integrity. Simply put, would you do it in front of your children? Or, your mother? If the answer is no, don’t do it.
#2 A Great Boss Sets Their Expectations Higher Than Their Boss’s Expectations for Them
It is very easy in any position of leadership to fall into the trap of worrying more about what our boss thinks about our performance than how we measure up to our own expectations of ourselves. When you wake up every morning in the “How am I going to explain this to my boss?” syndrome, life is not pleasant. The worst part is that your people see right through this. Instead of being a leader, you are seen as merely a mouthpiece or puppet for your boss.
The best bosses we found were those who led and managed so that you never saw any evidence that they even had a boss. They were their own boss. They worried about their own high, exacting standards and expectations. These bosses gained the respect of their employees. The ones who wore their boss on their sleeve did not.
#3 A Great Boss Never, Ever Makes the Same Mistake Twice
The difference between a singular mistake and repetitive mistake can be the difference between a pebble and a mountain. A great boss embraces mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve. They react in an open, positive manner that keeps them in control. Their employees know it, and so do their superiors.
#4 A Great Boss Goes to Their Boss with an Action Plan, Not a Problem
How many people in the office each day simply report the news to the boss? Any manager worth their salt already knows what is going on. When going to your boss, merely restating that which they are already aware is a waste of time and damages credibility. Great bosses understand that they must get to the essence of a challenge and develop an action plan in order to solve it.
#5 A Great Boss Follows Up
Most of corporate America is just plain terrible when it comes to following-up on assigned action items, returning calls, keeping commitments, time management, and the like. Anyone come to mind? Perhaps you? Perhaps your boss?
A common mistake that bosses make is committing to do something and not following up on it. This absolutely destroys credibility. It does not take long before the boss is not taken seriously.
Implementing any of the above principles makes for the foundation of a successful leader. The five of them together defines greatness.
Andrew R. Thomas, Ph.D., is associate professor of marketing and international business at the University of Akron; and, a member of the Core Faculty at the International School of Management in Paris. He is a bestselling business author/editor, whose 23 books include, most recently, American Shale Energy and the Global Economy: Business and Geopolitical Implications of the Fracking Revolution, The Customer Trap: How to Avoid the Biggest Mistake in Business, Global Supply Chain Security, The Final Journey of the Saturn V, and Soft Landing: Airline Industry Strategy, Service and Safety.