What does it take to be a great boss?
Some bosses are more memorable than others, and some perhaps you’d like to forget. But what does it take to be a great boss? What distinguishes the one that people remember years later as the leader who made a difference?
I was fortunate to work for many great bosses, but there were nine things that one of those great bosses did that really made him stand out. If we do our best to follow his lead, we have a chance to be great bosses, too.
Way Out There
It was one of the toughest jobs I’d ever had. For a year, I commanded a small combat outpost on the Iran-Iraq border. Every day my teams went “outside the wire” to train and advise the Iraqi Border Police along a 200 kilometer stretch of international boundary.
Our job was to make sure bad stuff didn’t leak across the border into the country.
The good news was that during that time, I had a great boss. He was in Baghdad, 90 miles away by helicopter. I didn’t see him that often, but we always felt his presence and support.
While my experience was necessarily military, none of what this leader did was significantly different from what any good leader can do under just about any circumstances (apart, perhaps, from the helicopter!).
This is what he did to become a great boss in my mind.
Traits of a Great Boss
He came to me. It was important to him to see me and my teams in our working environment so that he could understand first hand what our challenges were.
When he visited, we would spend the day together – but it was never chatting in an office or staring at PowerPoint. As soon as his chopper landed, we’d jump in a vehicle and we’d go somewhere where something was happening. He could see what I was doing, talk to the people I was responsible for leading, and interact with the people I was trying to help.
Sure, I had to make the occasional trek to the big headquarters, too. But his familiarity with what we faced helped him make better decisions when he was back at headquarters. He made a habit of getting down in the trenches, so he knew what was going on.
When he showed up, it was to help. So often, when the boss comes on an “inspection tour” to “check the troops” it ends up being more like an interrogation than a conversation. The going-in assumption seems to be that you are “doing it wrong” and he is there to “fix” things.
But with this boss, his goal was to honestly find out how to help. Walking in the door he assumed that I was already trying my best. His goal was to learn how to leverage the resources under his control to help me do even better.
He saw my success as his success, and this mindset made us feel like we were on the same team.
He didn’t do my job for me. That said, he also made it abundantly clear what his expectations were, where my responsibilities lay, and what the priority was. Together we set the vision and goals, but there was no doubt I was fully responsible for getting it done.
Leaving me to do my job was one way that he expressed his confidence in me. Even when I made mistakes, he would underwrite my failure so long as he was confident that I had learned from the experience.
He followed up. He never promised anything that he was not certain he could provide. For those things that he said that he would do, he did them, usually very quickly. Within hours of his departure, I would start to get notes from his staff asking for supporting details to coordinate delivery or clarify how they could assist.
He earned our trust. His support of us and our mission was aggressive and enthusiastic.
He genuinely cared about me. Despite the distance, he knew the name of my wife and a little about my kids. He knew of my non-business interests and we enjoyed talking about them some. He wanted to know my goals and see how he could help me reach them.
As an example, towards the end of the tour, we talked about my future. He wanted to know where I’d like to serve next. I told him that my long-shot hope was to return to Pennsylvania where we had a house.
Two weeks after his helicopter departed that day, I got an email from a post in Pennsylvania. The personnel officer said that he was tracking me as an inbound and wanted to start talking about the job they had in mind for me. My family was ecstatic when they heard the news.
He looked for opportunities to recognize others. Often in our talks, he would ask me about who was doing well. Later when we came across that person, he’d take pains to recognize them, and say something specific about what that they had done that made a difference.
Not only was the person thankful for the recognition from the big boss, they were thankful to me for passing their name along as someone who merited positive attention.
Even in the process of personally recognizing others’ accomplishments, he was building me up.
He talked to the people. In fact, he wasn’t afraid to engage with anyone we met along the way, regardless of their function. Whether a food server, gate guard, or on-the-ground operator, he struck up easy conversations with the people he encountered. He asked them about their job, their interests, and their challenges.
He treated everyone as a fellow professional and showed that he valued the role they fulfilled.
He encouraged thought. During his visits, we would always wrap up with some “thinking time” – just us in a quiet room somewhere. He would ask me to provide a professional topic in advance so he could have some time to think about it, too.
For 45 minutes, we would sit and chew on it, probing, prodding, asking “what if…” and trying to shine a light on it from as many angles as we could. In this way he modeled constructive open-mindedness, and encouraged all of us to think.
He valued our thoughts and wanted as many brains engaged as he could get.
He made hard decisions. He had plenty of difficult choices to make every day, but he did not shy away from them. He learned what he could in the time he had, he listened with an open mind, and then he made a clear decision, and stuck with it.
His decisions weren’t always popular, but it was clear when he made them, and we knew that the choices he made were all about mission accomplishment.
With him, we always knew where we stood, which made it possible for us to move on.
Great Boss: The Takeaway
There are some bosses who try to make you feel like they are the most important people in the room.
With stars on his shoulders and a helicopter to fly around in, he certainly could have played that game, but he didn’t.
When you talked with this great boss, he always made you feel as though you were the most important person in the room.
What is it that Maya Angelou said?
My great boss was a true servant-leader who focused on accomplishing the overall mission while watching out for the well-being of the people doing the work.
If you want to be remembered as a great boss, go and do likewise! (helicopter not required)