We Need to Save Leadership from the Leadership People

What good bosses really are

Last week Forbes published another one of their more typical quotes of the day: “Being a good leader starts with a firm commitment to your purpose.” The person who said this was Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, which ticks off three of the boxes that put you in a good position to say things about leadership and be taken seriously: you’re a CEO; of a company that people, at least those interested in business, have heard of; and you’re male.

Statements like this are standard fare in leadership literature, but what’s striking about it is how little it actually tells us. Firm commitment to a purpose is fine, but I don’t see how much of a head start on good leadership it actually gives us. I live in New York’s Lower East Side — a bustling, diverse, noisy neighborhood — and daily see people devoted to a task but not leading, not by CEO standards. One of my neighbors has legs amputated above his knees and sits in his wheelchair every day at the traffic-choked intersection of Delancey and Chrystie, gesturing at cars, greeting passersby, yelling at passersby, his mood swings palpable, in every kind of weather. This man is firmly committed to supervising this intersection, year-round. But he doesn’t appear to have followers, which to me seems like a better place to begin defining what makes a leader: having people who like what you’re doing and want to see more of it.

I don’t tell this story to make light of probable mental illness. (Indeed this man strikes me as saner than I would be in his circumstances.) But it’s important to dwell on the fact that being purpose-driven is far too squishy an indicator of good leadership, and that the sooner we stop thinking of leadership in lofty but ultimately vacuous terms, the better off we’ll be.

We need to save leadership from the leadership people, because if we’re objective about it, it’s obvious that the billions spent on “leadership development” has not brought us far enough away from thinking of the good leader as purposeful and decisive, in a very narrow and traditionally masculine way, and it has not led to happier outcomes, either on an individual or planetary level. Three-quarters of respondents to a recent global survey of 10,000 people ages 16 to 25 in 10 countries called the future “frightening,” while 56 percent said they thought that “humanity is doomed.” According to Recode senior data reporter Rani Molla, Slack surveys suggest “executives are nearly 3x more likely than non-executive employees to want to return to the office full-time” — a completely unambiguous signal that company leadership is occupying an entirely different reality than their supposed followers.

And for all the talk of sustainability, any day you can read a story about entire industries that accept and even promote wildly wasteful, abusive practices. Lack of leadership, or lack of caring, is maintaining the status quo. (Here is an article in The Atlantic about what happens to clothes that are bought online and returned. Here is one about Kenyan workers on a Unilever tea plantation demanding reparations for the company’s woeful failure to protect them, despite repeated warnings and ample time to prepare, during the 2007 post-election violence.)

Facebook’s first mission statement was famously “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” It sat uncomfortably alongside Mark Zuckerberg’s equally if not more famous MO — to “move fast and break things.” Perhaps to stop people from scrutinizing this disconnect and its potential implications (for democracy, for our civil society, for the media, for mental health) too closely, Zuckerberg, who is reported to be 5′7″ or 170cm tall, smartly took great pains to make sure he looked much taller in photographs. He got away with this because it’s hard to argue with success, and because when leadership is discussed in imprecise terms, we fall back on old habits, like a proven tendency, in the U.S. at least, to associate greater height with greater leadership ability, as Scott Galloway helpfully distills here. That this presents an obstacle for most women — statistically about 5” shorter than men — is just a small part of the problem.

When we’re not super clear on what effective and ethically sound leadership looks and sounds like, and when this vacuum gets filled with flimsy concepts that lead us toward places we don’t want to be, collectively and individually, what then? Where do we go from here?

I don’t think talking in terms of a new enlightened brand of leadership will do the trick. Since 1970 we have had servant leadership, which rests on the notion, popularized by Robert K. Greenleaf, that leaders are there to serve, and should consider their job less as giving orders or providing direction than fostering the well-being and personal growth of those with whom they have the privilege to work. The beating heart of the servant leadership ideal is that leaders will gain power and influence only as the people around them thrive, and meet their potential. “They recognize that people aren’t the most important resource in a company; they are the company,” according to Adam Grant. It is a really good idea, but given that it’s been talked about for years and yet remains a relatively fringe concept suggests to me that it’s not robust enough to crowd out the bad leadership ideas.

More recently, the concept of emergent leadership entered the arena. As Indeed puts it, “instead of assigned leaders, emergent leaders are the ones who inspire, are respected and are followed by their peers.” The main thing emergent leadership has in common with servant leadership is that leadership is earned, in some way. Those who make prominent contributions to the team and can manage themselves are natural candidates for emergent leaders, but as Devin Maloney allows, the ethos does tend to favor extroverts. Once we have a system like that, where the louder and brasher dominate, we’re not far from where we started.

Transformational leadership isn’t the answer either, not because its precepts are incorrect, but because all of the traits and habits that transformational leaders are purported to have — “generally energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate…concerned and involved in the process…focused on helping every member of the group succeed as well” — are simply what you’d expect from a good boss.

So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s fully admit that the “business of leadership” is a lot of talk — not all bad, but mostly air. Then let’s either stop using “leadership” when referring to the visionary and strategic aspects of running a company, or stop supposing that people with a strategic intelligence and business acumen are also qualified caretakers of other people. There are people who are good at purpose, and people who excel at making sure that people they’re responsible for have what they need to flourish. History gives us no reason to believe that these are reliably the same people. When we expect a single person to have competence in, let alone excel at, both strategy and caretaking, we should also expect this: that in capitalism as we know it, the taking-care part will always lose whenever situations seem to demand a choice between the two.

Once we’ve admitted the above, let’s elevate the role of, and the respect for, the good boss. The caretaker boss. A good boss is a wonderful thing. We need more good bosses, and fewer people in positions of authority who are in it for the perks, or who aspire only to a Big Meaningful Title.

A good boss is not in a rush to express themselves or smother a discussion with their opinion. They are actually curious about what others think, and even more so about how they feel. And a good boss is patient, knowing that not everyone is comfortable speaking their truth at the same pace.

A good boss therefore makes sure they’re accessible, and isn’t defensive in the face of complaints. This has a happy side effect both for them and for the people who work for them: they obtain better information. A bad boss is insulated against the truth, and thus often knows less about how their company is doing simply because their employees don’t always feel comfortable being honest with them. A good boss is aware. They know what they know and what they don’t.

A good boss knows how to do the work they’re supervising. (This idea would appear fundamental, but somehow amid the talk of capital-L leadership it got lost.) They know how hard it is, and where the tricky places are. My favorite IRL example of this is my maternal grandmother. After accepting a role as co-administrator of a nursing home while in her 50s, she went back to school to train to become a licensed practical nurse, or LPN. Her explanation to those who asked why, as a mother of four, with a cushy job already lined up, she would bother, was matter-of-factly that if she was going to be supervising nurses, she should really know how to do what nurses did.

A good boss praises lavishly. They notice what people are doing and what promise lies in it, and they freely compliment that promise. They compliment people both to their face and behind their backs. But being fairly low on ego, they don’t have a great need to be praised themselves. (This is not to say that they don’t appreciate positive affirmation, only that they can go for longer periods without their egos being stroked.)

The best bosses can show people where their skills lie even before the people themselves are aware they have those skills. They show people their “adjacent possible,” and support them as they move toward it. As Ed Zitron of the tech and culture newsletter Where’s Your Ed At writes, “a great manager (like a great coach) can take a good worker and make them great, or take an average worker and make them good. It’s an adjustment from seeing the young as employees who must be tolerated until they’re good to seeing them as early-stage investments who can be grown into something incredibly valuable.”

A good boss conserves resources, including emotional and spiritual resources. They respect others’ time and don’t wish to monopolize it or their headspace, or demand that people prove their loyalty by working in ways that jeopardize their happiness.

A good boss is brave enough to say no to things, even at the risk of losing business. They are aware both of the needs of the moment and the needs of a longer-term horizon.

A good boss trains their replacement, not just in the two weeks between giving notice and their last day on the job, but from day one. This training need not be formal — indeed, is best left implicit and casual. Mentorship is part of the mindset that they bring to work. And they know that leadership capabilities — the next good boss — might emerge in unexpected ways, and in unassuming people, within an organization.

A good boss might, as Jessica Orkin of SYPartners elaborates, have their exit date in mind immediately upon assuming a leadership role. Not because they’re impatient to get to the next thing, but because it serves as a reminder to empty themselves of all that they know, all the love they can give, before their time is up. Rather than feel threatened by their less senior colleagues’ success, they applaud it.

None of the above is easy. Much of it requires considerable maturity, wisdom, a practice of self-emptying plus deriving pure enjoyment from the wonder of other people (even when we don’t necessarily want to be in the office with them). Here’s hoping that somewhere, sometime soon, the strategy people will see that we need to give managers the space and time to do good boss things, and only those things. My guess is that people will like what they’re doing and want to see more of it.


We don't support this version of your browser, and neither should you!

You are visiting this page because we detected an unsupported browser. Your browser does not support security features that we require. We highly recommend that you update your browser. If you believe you have arrived here in error, please contact us. Be sure to include your browser version.