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Leadership: The Boss and The Real Boss

I recently went to the far-away province of Ontario, Canada to a small island called Barrie Island. I have done this all of my life, as has my mother, as had her father. Now my sisters and I torture the fourth generation of our family, our children, with the same trek. It takes two days, three modes of transportation and 18 hours of driving, with the reward that once you get there, you will be in the middle of no-where, in a log cabin, with just each other, for eight days.

I recently went to the far-away province of Ontario, Canada to a small island called Barrie Island. I have done this all of my life, as has my mother, as had her father. Now my sisters and I torture the fourth generation of our family, our children, with the same trek. It takes two days, three modes of transportation and 18 hours of driving, with the reward that once you get there, you will be in the middle of no-where, in a log cabin, with just each other, for eight days.

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What is interesting about my family is that we have all been given the same “bossy” gene. It skipped no one and each one of us is just as confident about his or her “rightness” as the next one. This year, nine of us traveled, and as usual, we stopped in Niagara on the Lake for the first night. My 10-year old son and his 17 and 14-year-old cousins, already fed up with the grown-up’s bickering over the best route to the cottage, went into town, “to walk down the street of the last civilization they will see for a week.” They are very dramatic! When they returned, they brought us a gift. It was two hats – one said THE BOSS and the other said THE REAL BOSS. They explained that every night at dinner we would designate a Boss and a Real Boss for the next day. The Boss would make the plan and if any disagreement or dissent erupted, then the Real Boss would step in to have the final word. Interesting.

What we learned.

1. The Real Boss set the vision and context for everyone’s day.
2. The Boss executed on the plan and got others to rally.
3. The Real Boss got most of the feedback for the success or failure of the day.
4. When the Real Boss was thinking clearly, he or she shared the feedback with the Boss and made sure that others knew that the credit should be shared with all involved in the successful execution of the day.

For example, one day, the Real Boss decided that we were going to take a family hike to the Cup and Saucer Trail. The Boss then got the directions, packed a back pack with waters, snacks and sun screen and off we went. Well, the Real Boss led the charge and the hike was beautiful, BUT it turned out to be seven miles long, with lots of rickety ladders and crawling on hands and knees through caves. Not all of us were prepared for this much adventure. It was also 90 degrees (in the shade) and we definitely did not have enough water.

When we gave our “Bosses” feedback at the end of the day, they were cool about it. The Real Boss took responsibility for not obtaining more information about length and degree of difficulty of the trail and the Boss shared responsibility for not bringing enough supplies. In the end we agreed, as difficult as the experience had been, it was also fabulous and well worth the effort. We then passed the hats to the two new Bosses. Ahhh… success!

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Things did not always go so smoothly. On another day, we went on an adventure that was boring, hot, difficult and not fun. When we gave our Bosses the feedback, they became defensive and arrogant. In fact, before it was all said and done, they banded together and called us lightweights and uncultured. (Sound familiar?) Needless to say, we were anxious for the hats to pass and lose those Bosses.

So I am sure you are asking yourself, “What does this have to do with me?” Well, I realized during this experience that as leaders, we have similar dynamics happening in our organizations. In fact, it’s almost always true that there are Real Bosses and Bosses; whether they are officially appointed or self-anointed, they exist. They can work in harmony with each other, creating a huge impact for the team or they can be divisive, creating upheaval.

Here is how it can play out.

The Good

Sometimes you have a leader in your organization that is The Boss. He or she smoothes the way for others in the organization, organizes work, lets people know when to go to the Real Boss with something and when that wouldn’t be such a good idea. In the good scenario, the Boss is empowered to make decisions in the Real Boss’s absence and puts the Real Boss in the loop, when the time is needed and right. The Boss makes the Real Boss’s job much easier and creates an overall better work environment for everyone. I have one of these in my company and I do not know what I would do without her. I know the rest of my team feels the same way.

The Bad

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There may also be a person, either by real appointment or self-anointment, who serves as The Boss in a way similar to the above scenario, but uses his/her power for self-fulfillment. He/she knows the Real Boss relies on him/her to manage things; however, he/she manages with the purpose of making him/herself look good and in the process, makes everyone else’s job a living hell. These people self promote, take key assignments, give all the grunt work to others and then take the credit and compliments from the Real Boss. I worked for one of these, and I often wondered why the Real Boss didn’t see that he was being snowed. I now know he wasn’t close enough to the staff to know. He was being told what he wanted to hear, his life was peaceful, and he didn’t stop to check if others on his team felt the same way.

The Ugly

I would like to say that it all ended well, but it didn’t. The Boss got promoted to be the Real Boss in another division. He went on to use his same strategy as the Real Boss in his new job. Some who worked for him emulated his style and the dysfunction spread. During his tenure in our division, we lost many good team members. This self-fulfilling style may work for the individual, but eventually erodes the team.

What should you do?

What kind of Real Boss and Bosses do you have in your organization? How do they show up to the whole team? Do you know how your team feels about the senior people you have appointed? Do you often get the real skinny on what is going on in your company? Do you know if you are being fed a line that is self-serving to your formally or informally appointed Boss?

It’s no surprise that I am going to tell you to go find out, to be in touch, to be a careful and thoughtful leader. If you don’t do this, even if you are the Real Boss, you will look like an idiot to the team you have taken so long to build, you will become ineffective and the turnover of your star staff will be inescapable.

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One Last Thought.

I think the Boss and the Real Boss concept works. It gives the Real Boss freedom to be visionary, to focus on your internal and external customers and helps to develop other leaders in your organization. It only works, though, if you have selected the right people as the “Bosses” and keep in touch with all members of your organization. Finally, and maybe most importantly, you need to give the credit where the real credit is due – it’s what Real Bosses do.

With that said, I want to thank Beth, for being a Boss on our team. I never give her enough recognition for that. Thank you!

Grace Andrews • Executive Coach/Corporate Healer • President, Training By Design •www.training-by-design.com

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