Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

The Leader's Journey to Simplicity and Competence

The Path to Becoming a Great Boss: A Purgatory of Uncertainty and Confusion

Being a great boss is a lot tougher than it looks. As I show in Good Boss, Bad Boss, doing the job well requires self-awareness and wisdom.  It also takes a lot of patience and resilence to endure setbacks and long stretches of insecurity, confusion, and cogntive overload required to learn the craft of leading others.  These facts of organizational life became especially clear to me last year when one of my former students came back to chat.  When he took my introduction to organizational behavior class, he routinely ripped apart his former bosses and many bosses we studied in class, calling them “lazy,” “idiotic,” and “incompetent.”  He sure changed his tune after getting his first job as a boss -- heading a small product development team.   During our conversation, he admitted that he needed “a little therapy” and confessed “This is really a tough job.  I am confused and keep screwing-up.”

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This new boss was in the second phase of the journey required to develop true expertise in any craft. As psychologist William Schutz explained, “Understanding evolves through three phases: simplistic, complex, and profoundly simple.”  (I have written about Schutz before, see this post). This process means, as my distraught student learned, being a great boss seems deceptively easy at first blush.  But no boss can master the craft without traveling through a purgatory of uncertainty and confusion.  The best bosses also realize that, although the stretches of confusion become shorter and less frequent over time, this quest for deep understanding never ends.  There is no magic cure or shortcut that will instantly transform youy into a skilled boss.  But I do believe – following Schutz’s model – that path becomes easier if you devote yourself to the relentless pursuit of simple competence (a theme I expand on in this BusinessWeek essay).

My view is that great bosses realize there will always be times when they are overwhelmed and baffled, that confronting and wallowing through excessive complexity is necessary for developing useful rather than useless simplifications.   Yet no matter how bewildered great bosses might be at a given moment, they strive to develop a simple mindset and master seemingly obvious moves.  The result is that, if you talk to the best bosses about their craft, they often make it seem so simple -- P&G’s last CEO AG Lafley being exhibit one here. After all, this clear thinking and elegant expression are the fruits of their labors.  This is why, when you ask great bosses about the “secrets” of their success, they usually answer there is no mystery; they are just doing their jobs. 

This perspective is based on some theory and research, but of course, it is just an opinion colored by my biases and the quirks of my experience. What do you think?  Does it fit your view of the boss’s journey. Also, what important parts have I left out?

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Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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