Lost & Found Instructions: The Super Boss
By Arturo Cuenllas, Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Professor
Some - especially those my age - will remember the television series The Great American Hero. Ralph Hinkley is a school teacher who has to wear a suit with special powers that he has received from aliens. The problem is that Ralph loses the instruction book in the desert, and he has to learn to use those powers based on 'trial and error.'
Leading teams and people is also a process of trial and error. I always tell my students that there are no shortcuts to experience. Although, the truth is that experience per se is not enough either.
I still remember my first job as a manager. It was a disaster because I wasn't ready to take on a boss role. In the same way that it is convenient to have a theoretical reference in the practice of any sport or activity, to lead people and teams, it is also necessary to have a framework of basic 'instructions' from which to start. I didn't have it. But neither do many bosses with consolidated experience; the many years they worked managing teams haven't helped them improve their leadership skills. Indeed, they continue to persist in their mediocrity or wrongdoing.
The instructions that I am going to provide are not detailed. In fact, they are not instructions but a frame of reference that can help us work to be more effective in our role as bosses.
So what are the essential areas that every leader has to attend to?
If we could summarize the most important ideas and concepts about management and leadership, they could be grouped under the following principles.
These principles are simple and entirely scalable. That is, they are just as practical for a mid-level manager as they are for the top executive of a company. (Although they still become more fundamental for the executive or the entrepreneur).
The eight principles of a super boss are common sense. Nobody should be surprised about them. That is why we should not stop repeating them. Why? Because often, common sense can become the least common of all senses. Or you can put it in the other way: things that we take for granted get taken.
1) Balance between 'soft' and 'hard' skills. The first principle does not surprise anyone. We always talk about 'soft' leadership skills. But the truth is that a super boss has to be very good in his or her technical area. Without having the 'hard skills,' there is no possibility of following the rest of the precepts. Everything falls apart. But here, we tend to get stuck when we unconsciously believe that we have reached our peak of knowledge. Experience and training can strengthen our confidence. However, we can also become obsolete; if we do the same old thing all the time. Only people with a spirit of improvement and sincere curiosity can move to the next level. Psychologists call this a "growth mindset."
In the same way, the supposed 'soft' competencies influence the 'hard' ones. For example, our judgment or decision-making can be affected by our lack of humility, empathy, or temperance. Also, our inability to properly self-assess ourselves can affect our performance.
In any case, it has been long proved that intelligence quotient (IQ) alone is not a determining factor in professional success. Our emotional intelligence (EQ) becomes even more critical. We all want smart and competent bosses. But we also want them to be caring, honest, and authentic.
Not complying with this rule: impedes you to be more effective in your job.
2) Lead by example. It is not possible to influence people and get the best out of them if you don't have credibility. Just like building a house from the ground up, a good boss has to earn the respect and credibility of those she or he leads. People mostly stick with their bosses' actions or decisions - and not what they say they are going to do.
Leading by example meets a fundamental principle of honesty and integrity. Simon Sinek put it this way: "Nobody has forced you to be a leader. It was your choice. Therefore, you have to be willing to make sacrifices."
Or your thought all was going to be privileges?
What sacrifices are we talking about? In the super boss's framework, we could include the following sacrifices:
- The sacrifice of having to try harder.
- The sacrifice of having to take on more responsibility, pressure, and stress.
- The sacrifice of being responsible too for the mistake of others.
- The sacrifice of being a role model and taking care of how your behaviors affect your team.
- The sacrifice of having to deliver bad news in person, without hiding, and have honest conversations with your collaborators.
- The sacrifice of having to make unpopular decisions to achieve a greater good.
- The sacrifice of being clear, transparent, and faithful to your values despite the pressures you will encounter along the way.
- The sacrifice of thinking of others before you.
Not complying with this rule: will make you lose tons of credibility and rest your capacity to influence others.
3) Set the necessary values in your team and the organization. Leading by example is linked to a leader's second area of work. Values have to be translated into behaviors. This means that not only you but the rest of your team or your company must live them daily. Your actions and decisions must take into account your values. Otherwise, they will remain on wet paper. You must hire, train, evaluate, communicate, promote and even fire people with the values in mind.
What are the behaviors and priorities that we will establish in our company or our team? What are the red lines that we will not allow? What everyday actions do we expect in our company?
Here we talk about leadership principles or universal values such as respect, effort, accountability, ethics, tolerance, responsibility, good judgment, honesty, diversity, humility, etc. However, additional values can improve performance and connect with our strategy: customer service, innovation, creativity, sustainability, excellence, meritocracy or empowerment.
And yet, whatever value we establish will be invalid if we don't see it first in our bosses. That is why you must always lead by example; your decisions and priorities must be aligned with your values.
Not complying with this rule: implies that the values only appear on a paper, website, or corporate jargon. It happens in most companies: they publish and proclaim corporate values but do not put them into practice in their daily actions.
4) Set a direction: where we are going and why. Everyone has to be on the same page. Your people need to understand how their work contributes to the direction that we are going. Here I am not talking about management objectives, such as the budget. Performance indicators matter, and we have to accomplish them, but they are not the path that enlightens us.
The direction or goals I am talking about are aspirational and respond to a kind of purpose: Why do we do what we do? What would our clients or other stakeholders miss if we weren't here? How can our jobs (no matter where we are in the company) impact the company's direction?
The direction will guide us. However, it does not provide the details. "We have to climb that mountain. But I don't know how we will achieve it; I only know that this is the mountain. And not the other. Together we will see how to do it." This statement leads to your employees' empowerment, as they will have to find out the details with you.
A super boss has to worry that people see the meaning of what they do. It seems obvious, but we often take the company's vision, purpose, or mission for granted. This is the one thing that we have to communicate to our collaborators most, even more so when departmentalization, menial jobs and bureaucracy separate us from what matters most.
Managers must be repetitive and communicate the direction over and over again, like a parrot. A room cleaner, a computer technician, a sales assistant, a flight attendant, or a mechanic at a car dealership all need to understand how their work can positively impact the direction the company is pursuing.
Not complying with this rule: involves getting lost in details that don't matter or having people in a team following personal agendas.
5) Fight for your people so they can have the necessary resources to do a good job. There is nothing more discouraging for anyone than not having the necessary means to do quality work. It is also exasperating to have that cowardly boss who only cares about what they think from above. Unable to fight for the interests of his team.
People usually want to do a good job; the problem is that they often can't. Maybe we cannot do a quality job because we lack personnel, information, tools, time, etc.
A good boss has to fight "consistently" and with "courage" because her team has the appropriate means. Yes, that's right, this means that sometimes you will have to argue assertively, logically, and constructively with your boss. So it would be convenient for you to choose those battles that matter. Hence, you have to understand that it is about your people and the overall company interest.
Not complying with this rule: can make your collaborators lower their arms. Or worse, the most talented people on your team give up and leave the company.
6) Empower your people and team = multiply their talent. The opposite leads us to micromanagement. Control matters, and it has to be in your repertoire of management tools. You may have to micromanage at some point, dictating orders, be more assertive if people are not the right one, or don't know how to do their job. But your goal has to be to improve your team and the people who make up that team.
This means that you will have to surround yourself with the right people and give them more freedom. Empowering means listening to them, let them guide you as well, and trust in their criteria.
We always talk about empowerment, but the truth is that we are left half. A boss who empowers in a certain way is vulnerable: "I don't have the answers to all the problems, but together we can find the best solution." Although it seems counterintuitive, this attitude carries a lot of security and inner confidence.
The manager who claims to have all the answers is a less self-confident person and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that happens in this way: (1) The boss has to provide solutions to all problems. (2) Employees have to wait for his or her instructions to make a decision. (3) People get used to the boss being the one who solves problems. (4) The manager reinforces the belief that they would not have been able to find the solution without him or her. (5) Conclusion: the company or the team is less intelligent.
Not complying with this rule: diminishes the capacities of the people and the talent of your team. On top of that, it also shrinks their commitment and motivation. And therefore, the competitive ability of a company.
7) Invest time in people individually (1: 1), but don't neglect your team (1: 6). A super boss has to be a good coach of people and teams. He or she must set the direction, values, and behaviors that all team members must share; he must also establish the team's fundamental rules and responsibilities. She has to teach them to work as a team and correct deviations. For example, you have to teach them how to run a meeting effectively, discuss ideas constructively, listen actively, resolve conflicts between them, communicate properly, etc.
However, you can never forget that you also have to serve your people individually. Not only do you have to teach people to work well as a team, but you will also have to attend to the needs, opportunities, strengths, and weaknesses of each member of your team.
With some people, you will have to invest more time, and with others less. But you have to reach all of them in a customized and regular way.
The company's interest rules over a team's part and the team's claim over the individual. But this does not mean that we do not have to personalize our attention to each one. It seems obvious, but we often serve only one area, neglecting the other.
Not complying with this rule: leads to imbalances and dysfunctionalities in the team and the people you are leading.
8) Create a space for psychological safety through vulnerability. This precept is not so obvious.
Vulnerability precedes trust. What does this mean? That the boss must be the first one to show his her vulnerability.
How? By recognizing his blind areas, his mistakes, his doubts, his uncertainties, etc.
Why? Otherwise, people will see that it is not safe, honest, and hide their uncertainties, doubts, weaknesses, and mistakes. Ultimately, no one will go head-on. Then, everyone will play a dangerous game for the company's performance: The game of imposed invulnerability.
Creating a safe space means that we can show ourselves as we are: authentic. However, it is not only about being vulnerable but exceptional. Personal and professional improvements happen better when we are within a community that supports us and challenges us to improve ourselves continually.
Not complying with this rule: affects the performance and motivation of people. And therefore, to the company.
There is little new under the sun. However, how many bosses can confirm that they comply with all these principles?