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.

In Praise Of Great Bosses–And What Makes Them Great

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.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.