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We don't need them. Let's provide our organizations with mentors, pathfinders and coaches that inspire greatness instead.
Those of you who’ve read my columns The End of Middle Managers and Everyone Leads will not be surprised. Now I’d like to make a case for abolishing bosses. We don’t need them. Let’s provide our organizations with mentors, pathfinders and coaches that inspire greatness instead.
I read an article this week that sincerely impressed me by Wendy Appel, Should we Banish Bosses? for the Lead Change Group. While reading Eric Jackson’s 31 Signs You’re a Horrible Boss, she asked herself what happens when someone becomes “boss?”
The very word implies a number of negative things: By my very function, I am here to “boss” you around, to take charge, to exert control, to become an authority figure and to mete out punishment and rewards.
Perhaps at least part of the problem is in the language itself. Words are a powerful thing, and when we take on a title, subconsciously we also take on the characteristics we equate with the role.
For example, none of the winning athletes or teams in the current Olympics have “bosses.” The desire and ability to achieve greatness is entirely their own. To bring out their greatest performance they work with coaches who provide exercises for skill building and continuous support. They envision themselves as champions and winners, and then they conduct the actions to help them achieve their seemingly impossible goals.
As a case in point, 400 meter dash sprinter Oscar Pistorius inspired millions by making it all the way to the Olympic finals to run his greatest race as a double amputee.
Great companies know that winners come in all sizes and packages. People do their best when they are able to do what they love. Great coaches are able to align their players’ talents and interests with the company’s work. They also know how to bandage up a broken player and get them back into the game.
So if we banish the bosses, what do we replace them with? At Fishbowl, we have captains (coaches). We have six, who work in three partnered leadership pairs. Since words have power, the words we choose to guide their roles are Empowerment and Trust. (You’ve likely heard me mention those components of our 7 Non Negotiables before.)
First we trust, and then we empower. The captains design their own procedures. They handle human resources, and they customize what they feel they need for their people and their departments. They come together primarily as a resource to share what’s working and to ask for input and advice on what’s not.
Formerly, I would come up with an idea and pass it down, and the teams would do their best to respond and achieve what I’d said. Now they have the additional room to customize their own policies, their commission plans, and their own promotions. They make decisions based on their own budgets and on their own profit and loss.
The captains are motivated by the desire to create a bigger profit pool and to be able to share in it more. They are thriving in an environment where they have no bosses. It’s opened up the opportunity for an entirely new level of play.
This is the opposite of the “Peter Principle” style of leadership traditional management has espoused in the past. It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle. This school of thinking held that at a certain point leaders would reach their zenith and would not have the capacity or the competency to rise further. At this point, organizations would replace the “fatigued” leaders with fresh blood.
Our people know they’ve been entrusted with the company’s goods. Is it too much pressure? It appears to be the opposite. Our captains and our teams are happier and more energized than before.
We should note that with trust also comes the inevitable learning mistakes. They are worth the cost. Many leaders are willing to trust their key players, but they aren’t willing to fully empower. At the first sign of a problem, they yank back, hard, leaving team members and employees more stifled and reluctant to act than before. As the famous statement by Neal A. Maxwell says, they “yank up the daisies to see how the roots are doing,” while, of course, immediately killing the flowers.
My paired leadership partner Mary Michelle Scott and I meet with our captains as department leads every week; however, we recently realized we hadn’t assembled as company leaders for an entire six months. We brought them to my home for an offsite—a little longer meeting—and we were amazed, but not surprised, at how well they had their houses in order. During the entire six-month period, while achieving record growth, the team hasn’t had a need to get me or Mary directly involved. (A little tapping of the flywheel here and there, but no direct intervention.) Accountability comes naturally through the creation of clear working agreements. Some of our most outstanding product developments were discovered “accidentally” on the road to “somewhere else”.
Many would agree that the model of the “hero leader”—the authoritarian bosses who took America through the twentieth century—is broken. In the traditional model, the leader is great at what he or she does, but there’s no model for the nurturing and mentoring process—the trust and empowerment—that gives the organization a succession plan. When that person is gone, everything behind him or her immediately collapses.
Some critics may feel we may be missing some things. Others may maintain we actually do have managers and bosses—we just call them “captains.” That’s okay. I maintain that titles do matter. These vital individuals are learning to lead in the same way that we lead.
Without empowerment, it’s like strapping your most talented people down to an original IBM PC with 5 ¼” floppies. Who would expect to operate an industry-leading organization like that? It’s time for companies to be refurbished, refreshed and revitalized. And banishing traditional bosses would be a very good start.
If you are a CEO or President, you may be wondering what your new role will be in the “enlightened game of work.” Our role is to scout out new and innovative opportunities for our companies. We lead out in new areas such as social media, new corporate partnerships, and more, as the brave new world we’re living in continues to progress and evolve.
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