7 minutes reading time (1401 words)

Bad Boss/ Good Boss?

b2ap3 icon HS Leadership captionedThis is my homage to the stand-out bosses I have worked with over my many years' of leadership development and coaching. These extra-ordinarily talented people have taugh me much about what it takes to be a great boss.

It is over 20 years since Marcus Buckingham published “First, Break All the Rules” and coined the phrase “People leave managers, not companies”.

He is backed up by Gallup research findings that 75 percent of the reasons people quit come down to their managers. Assuming that some of those leavers were not people that the manager wanted to stay, we can look to Gallup to ask “why do good people leave?” This research found multiple reasons why good people leave – pretty much all of them relate to the environment their boss creates;

  • A lack of trust and autonomy
  • Not being appreciated
  • Not being respected
  • Little opportunity to grow and develop
  • Feeling under-utilised
  • Poor management
  • Poor communication
  • Lack of support………….

So we are not getting off the hook on this one; bad bosses cost our organisations a fortune in attrition and damage our reputation as an attractive place to work.

I have worked for, and left, both good and bad bosses.  The distinction between the two is that I have gone back to the good bosses and have sent lots of talent their way. The bad ones I hope to never see again and have warned others to steer clear.

“Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” Simon Sinek via Twitter

For the last 15 years, I have worked with hundreds of bosses at all levels of organisations. There are a few dozen who really stand out as bosses people really want to work for. Here is what I have learnt from them about being a good boss;

Be Human First

Work is a social space and we are social beings. When bosses are too detached and formal in their relationships, it is impossible for them to build relationships of trust. Trust grows from letting people in; seeing and understanding you as a person. You make connections by sharing your stories and experiences. Trust grows even more when you demonstrate empathy with the stories and experiences of other.

When your people know and understand you as a person, they also know what to expect of you. This removes the fear of the unknown; the default state that stimulates the fight/flight reflex. Fear erodes trust and leads to a culture of blame and hiding mistakes.

What I notice about bosses who are human-first is that they have done some deep work on understanding themselves and their impact on others. They see working on themselves as their most important work.

Have Care

If like me, you are pre-disposed to focus on driving tasks, you will often miss the impact on people. It’s not that I don’t care about my people – quite the opposite. However, I tend to expect that if they are quietly getting on with it, they are OK.

Good bosses remember to show that they care about their people.  They look after their physical well-being and check-in on their emotional health. When they set goals and expectations they ask questions about what people feel excited, confident and concerned about. They support, mentor and coach.

They also get to know their people as people; understanding what motivates, frustrates and challenges them. They offer them opportunities to stretch and challenge their talents and uncover hidden ones. They provide a secure base for people to take risks from.

“(A secure base leader is) a person who provides a sense of protection, safety and caring and offers a source of inspiration and energy for daring, exploration, risk taking and seeking challenge.” George Kohlrieser, co-author “Care to Dare”

Manage Well

Get the basics of managing people right and have the toolkit to do it well. In basic motivation theory this is a “hygiene factor”; get it right and people will take it for granted, get it wrong and it de-motivates and disengages people.

The basics of managing people is about the process of turning strategy into work and results;

  • Setting and communicating team direction, priorities and deliverables in line with the organisation’s strategy
  • Clearly defining success and the measures of it
  • Setting clear expectations, delegating and agreeing accountabilities, responsibilities and levels of authority
  • Supporting people to align their individual goals, deliverables and measures of success
  • Creating and maintaining processes and communication channels for; keeping everyone aligned, encouraging collaboration, managing changes to priorities, reporting progress and reviewing team and individual contributions, celebrating success, decision-making and problem-solving.
  • Mentoring, coaching, giving feedback and providing resources for team and individual learning and skill development

These are all skills that you can learn to do “well-enough”. Good bosses know this and create their own personal toolkit and process for ensuring these basics get done. Having a toolkit and process means that you have repeatability. In turn, this means that every year these get easier, you get better at them and they become good habits in the team.


I often ask groups of bosses to put a hand up if they are a “Manager”. Of course they all put up a hand. But guess what happens when I ask them to put up a hand if they are a “Leader”? There’s often a lot of self-conscious side-glancing and half raised hands.

“….as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

Good bosses “step-up” and own their space. They don’t rely on position-power for their authority, they set their shoulders back, hold their heads up and look you in the eyes as an equal. They take responsibility for their actions and especially their own mistakes.

This adult mind-set and demeanour gives people confidence and the permission to step up themselves.

Be Purposeful

Purpose is a driver of exceptional performance because it fuels our energy, motivation, resilience and creativity. When people do extraordinary things it is usually the result of the fire in their hearts created by a clear and deeply meaningful (to them) purpose.

“Motivation is a fire within. If someone else tries to light it, it will burn very briefly” Stephen Covey

Purposeful bosses understand that they have to connect the purpose of the organisation to that of the team and every individual member of the team. They therefore focus on outcomes (what happens or is made possible by what we do) over activities (what we do).

Be Positive

Most leaders focus on the problems to be solved and the barriers to progress. Good bosses are more positive. It’s not that they ignore the difficult stuff, they just come at it with a different mind-set.

 “Positive leaders see opportunity in problems, learning in mistakes and inspire hope and self-belief in their people. This creates and environment of individual and team growth and resilience” Fiona Gifford

When we focus our brains on problems and negativity, we are neurologically less well equipped to deal with them. Optimism and positivity result in greater emotional control, enhanced reflection and thinking capability and focused attention.

Good bosses also take time to offer appreciation and celebrate successes; even the small ones. Their one-to-ones always begin with what’s going well and they praise effort even when the results do not follow. By doing this, they fuel the desire for achievement and learning; leading ultimately to higher individual and team contributions.

Confront the “Square Pegs”

Most people come to work wanting to do a good job. Rarely, but sometimes, this isn’t the case. Often an organisation’s needs change, and a previously good performer no longer has the skills to meet those needs.

In these circumstances, good bosses are respectful, honest and decisive. Making it possible for people to either skill-up, or move on to somewhere they can add value.

“The function of leadership is grow more leaders.” Ralph Nader

Good bosses also help talent to move on. Holding on to great people when they are ready for new or bigger challenges is not smart. Let them go, help them on their way, push them towards the edge. They may never come back, but they will tell the word what a great boss you were.

Better still, they will be great bosses and inspire others to be the same.


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