In Praise Of Great Bosses—And What Makes Them Great

Even in an era where all the cool kids are founders, having a superior can be superlative. A look at the best things you can learn from a boss.

We all want to strike out on our own. We can't stand performance reviews. We hate being told what to do. We get the feeling that if we have a boss, we're limiting ourselves.

Which is a bit silly. Programmer Jonathan Mumm shows us why. He talks about being a Midwestern kid with an inferiority complex (which this writer identifies with) out in the world with something to prove. Though bursting with motivation, he was clumsy—miffing coworkers, making unproductive arguments, and rubbing people the wrong way.

In contrast, he saw the grace of his boss:

The things I struggled with, she made look effortless. When talking to customers, she knew what to say and how to say it. When dealing with coworkers, she communicated her point with just the right amount of force. She appeared rational and humble. She had a rhythm that I lacked.

So like any good voyeur/anthropologist/careerist, he observed and emulated her. Mumm notes that she was, as humans are, flawed—"cynical," "unfair," "tempermental," are all descriptors—and more importantly, she pointed it out.

What Mumm's manager had in spades was self-awareness, a skill that might be more scarce than data crunching:

My boss was shrewdly self-aware. She was aware of how she was perceived. Aware of her biases, flaws, and mistakes. It’s a trait I’ve sensed missing in other managers I’ve considered. To be fair, it’s a shallow judgement to say someone isn’t self-aware, but I get the impression seeing someone heedlessly frame an opinion, or humble-brag an accomplishment, that he’s not in the habit of stepping outside his own perspective to reflect on his opinions and self-image objectively.

My boss had that habit, and it made a difference in how I was able to absorb and learn from her.

By being open with her flaws, she was easier to learn from: Mumm could recognize her positive, emulation-worthy behaviors and see her destructive habits, lending him a sense of discernment rare to young go-getters. By making herself vulnerable, Mumm's boss helped him to become more empathic—which is, if you've been following along, one of our most important skills.

Ever had a boss that was particularly awesome? Give them some love in the comments.

Having a boss

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Chris Angle]

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  • Sanghamitra Mandal

    A great  boss is: who gives you vision to follow, freedom to work and guidance when you are down. Had two bosses like that and it's been an awesome experience. Thank you, guys.

  • Vanessa Piccinini

    Great article! I have also emulated great traits I saw not only in my bosses but also other co-workers.

  • Mmcs

    No doubt self-awareness is an important quality in a boss. However, I think its a serious over-simplification to say that it is the defining factor in what makes a great boss. I think it is a bit deeper and more complex than that. There's a couple great books "The Supervisor's Big Book of Answers" and "From Hiring to Firing" that I think do a pretty good job of defining the whole picture. Here's the link if you are interested:

  • Doconnor2

    I had a great boss.  He had plenty of flaws but what made him really great was that he ALWAYS included the person direclty responsible for an area/department in every discussion, meeting, and decision that affected that area.   Regardless of how big or small the impact was going to be, he deferred to the person directly responsible for the area, making his people feel like they were the experts and creating strong tiesof  loyalty to him.  May seem like common sense, but of over 10 other bosses I've had, he's the only one I've ever seen do it consistently.

  • Nikhil

    Second that.. We didn't share the same boss! Heck, I don't even know "DOCONNOR2"! :) But, like DOCONNOR2's boss, I too had a great boss! He did exactly as mentioned above, plus one big thing that always made me feel loyal to him. Any mistake that we juniors made (and I was fresh out of college), he took it on himself. His superior/our customers would ask, this or that went wrong, what the hell happened? And he'd say, "I accept, we failed". It was never about blaming anyone else, or finger pointing. But when handing out praise, he'd pinpoint each individual by name, put it in writing and ensure we got the credit that we deserved and more.. A terrific boss, I'm still in touch with him, and ask him for advice.

    A genuinely good person, he took (still does) take great interest in my growth. A gem of a boss, my only regret is that when he changed jobs, I wasn't able to follow him to where he went :)