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Bossing Around

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Bossing around

Bosses are getting a bad rap these days. Despite the mammoth industry of motivational leadership advice glutting the bookshelves, most of the participants in our group writing project depicted their bosses as, um - how shall I put this? - narcissistic dopeheads. I don't know where all that sage management advice is ending up, but it certainly isn't trickling its way down to the many folks on the receiving end of things.

The "Bosses" writing prompt evoked a very entertaining and instructional crop of posts about, well, mostly bad bosses. There were stories of foul language, sordid affairs, selfish aloofness, cluelessness, drinking problems, embezzlement, paranoia, and one hilarious account of cubicle stalking. All of which make for the ingredients of a good sitcom. Except this was real life. I suppose if we had prompted bloggers to post something on "Leaders" or "Managers," these terms would have inspired more uplifting stories, offering role models of hope and courage. But the word "boss" somehow dredges up the opposite: primal images of oppression, bullying, and mean-spiritedness. And apparently there is far too much of that still actually going on out there.

There were, however, a few shining examples of what a healthy boss relationship could look like. Stephie's story of Indira, the calm manager bravely leading her office through the trauma following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Susanne's story of her first boss Dennis, an unlikely character who became a cherished friend, influencing her early career and later dying of AIDS. Diedra tells of a boss who understands our need to belong, and how that sense of clicking together impacts organizational performance. She recounts the story of a visit to a friend's office, where she couldn't help but notice the positive vibes emanating from the management culture there:

On her desk a framed certificate made it clear that her bosses knew the importance of the fit and the click and the weaving together, right from the start. There were three categories on this certificate that had been presented to my friend on her first day of employment: Why we like you. Why we need you. What we expect from you. And after each heading, my friend’s bosses had taken the time to speak specifically about my friend and why she was so important to them. Fit. Click. Weave. Right there in black and white. My friend has been working there for a very long time.

More often, management doesn't spell it all out for you like that, and you have to rely on your own instincts and initiative to navigate your way around the corporate culture to establish that fit. Caleb managed to find that fit by setting boundaries with a histrionic higher-up, and turned a potential confrontation into a mutually respectful working relationship. At first, his foul-mouthed boss demanded the world of him. He refused to give in to her unreasonable requests. But rather than pigeon-holing her as a crazy workaholic that would damage his career, he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt - along with his highest regard and his best efforts. Eventually, an unexpected and unguarded exchange revealed that people, especially bosses, are not always what they appear on the surface.

Sounds like loving your neighbor, doesn’t it? So that’s what I tried to do. I gave her a break in my mind, did my best to help, gave as much time as I could, and quietly refused to do more than what was okay for my family. Of course, this consistent refusal to give her more sparked the confrontation I feared. But the confrontation did not proceed as I feared it would. And so, it turns out she not only values family, she is also as generous of spirit as she is histrionic. She knows her flaws and refers to them self-deprecatingly while using them to her advantage when she needs to...I also discovered that my self-defensiveness and assumptions about hard-ass, take-no-prisoners female bosses were sabotaging what promises to be a great working relationship, and there is a lot I can to learn from her.

Leadership, management, bossing - we can't get away from it. We're all answering to someone, and we also have influence on everyone around us. I think Lyla summed it up well: the best bosses are the ones who get this strange idea of servanthood - they go out of their way to make their people look better, not the other way around.

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