Good Boss, Bad Boss on Five "Best Business Book" Lists for 2010

"A head-clearing blast of sauciness"

Posted Dec 22, 2010

Good Boss, Bad Boss has been selected as among the best business books of the year on five lists I've heard about.  These are:

1. INC Magazine's list of "Best Books for Business Owners."

2. One of the Globe & Mail's Top 10 Ten Business Reads of 2010.

3. One of the four "best of the rest" selections by 1-800-CEO-Read in the leadership category, behind the winner Bury My Heart at Conference Room B. (I love that title, just brilliant).

4. The New York Post's Round-Up of Notable Career Books for 2010.

5. The Strategy & Business list of the four best Best Business Books in the leadership category.  See the excerpt below from, Walter Kiechel III's story here, which I found to be generally fun, thoughtful, and well-written (you have to register, but it is free). Here is Walter's rollicking review:

Finally, for a head-clearing blast of sauciness, pick up a copy of Robert I. Sutton's Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst. In a year when too many leadership books combined solemn with vapid, Sutton's decision to focus on the figure of "the boss" comes across as thoroughly refreshing. Even after decades of study, we may not agree on what constitutes a leader or all the proper functions of a manager, but everybody knows who the boss is.

If it's you, however long you've been at it, you can probably benefit from Sutton's breezy tour of the wisdom he has distilled from scholarly studies, his own experience, and the thousands of responses he received to his last book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (Business Plus, 2007). To say that Sutton, a Stanford professor, wears his learning lightly is to understate the case. At times he wears it like a vaudeville comedian's gonzo-striped blazer with accompanying plastic boutonniere shooting water. This is a weirdly merry book, perfect for a down year - but not an unserious book.

Consider, for example, Sutton on the imperative to take control. Yes, you as a leader have to, he counsels, in the sense that "you have to convince people that your words and deeds pack a punch." And he offers up a series of fairly familiar gambits to that end: "Talk more than others - but not too much." "Interrupt people occasionally - and don't let them interrupt you much." "Try a little flash of anger now and then." What redeems this from being mere Machiavellian gamesmanship is Sutton's admission that any control you pretend to is probably largely an illusion - there's a lot of play-acting in any executive role, he wants us to know. He makes the case that pushing too hard in the wrong way is a lot more dangerous than not pushing hard enough. Given the danger of the "toxic tandem" - your people are always scrutinizing you, at the same time that power invites you to become self-absorbed - leaders are always on the edge of becoming bad bosses, or even worse, bossholes. So he also advises you to blame yourself for the big mistakes, serves you up a seven-part recipe for an effective executive apology, reminds you to ask the troops what they need, and finishes with the injunction, "Give away some power or status, but make sure everyone knows it was your choice."Another chapter title captures the overall aspiration Sutton advocates: "Strive to Be Wise." His is a street-smart, been-around-the-block-but-still-a-happy-warrior brand of wisdom, rooted in a boss's understanding of himself or herself coupled with an appreciation that bosses have to take action and make decisions, including doing lots of what Sutton labels "dirty work." As a boss "it is your job to issue reprimands, fire people, deny budget requests, transfer employees to jobs they don't want, and implement mergers, layoffs, and shutdowns." Wise bosses understand that although they may not be able to avoid such unpleasantness, how they go about the dirty work makes an enormous difference. Empathy and compassion are good places to start, says Sutton. Layer on constant communication with the affected, including feedback from them you really listen to, however painful it is. Finally, you'll probably need to cultivate a measure of emotional detachment, beginning with forgiveness for the people who lash out at you. And maybe reserving some forgiveness for yourself.

Indeed, Good Boss, Bad Boss is in its entirety a page-by-page guide to better bossly self-awareness. The variety of sources cited can be dizzying. On one page you may get a summary of two academic studies, a quote from Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda, a recollection of Sutton's parents, and three examples of bad bosses sent in to Sutton's website. (At times, the book seems almost crowdsourced and puts one in mind of Charlene Li on the power of social technology to expose behavior.) What gives all this consistency and makes for an enjoyable read is Sutton's voice throughout - at times yammering, on rare occasions bordering on the bumptious, but in general so "can you believe this?" ready to laugh at the author's own pratfalls, and so eager to help, that the net effect is sneakily endearing. Rather a comfort in a low, mean year.

That guy can write, huh?

As a closing comment, I am tickled with the recognition this book received and certainly that it appeared on The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists.  But perhaps the most important thing to me is that, when I talk to bosses of all levels -- from management trainees, to project managers, to chefs, to film directors and producers, to CEOs and top management teams, the core themes in the book sometimes surprise them a bit, but nh early always strike them as pertinent and central to the challenges they face.   I have talked to some 50 different groups about the ideas in Good Boss, Bad Boss since June and -- although I enjoy talking about all my stuff with engaged audiences -- there is something about this book that engages people more deeply than any book I've written since Jeff Pfeffer and I came out with The Knowing-Doing Gap in 1999.

Finally, I want to thank all of you who read my blogging at my personal Work Matters blog, Psychology Today, and for your support and encouragement. Your suggestions, stories, and disagreements (with me me and each other) played a huge role in shaping the content and tone of Good Boss, Bad Boss, and I am most grateful for all the ways you helped.

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