Why I hate the word “boss”

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The boss from the Office


The difference between a boss and a leader is that a boss says, “Go.” A leader says, “Let’s go.”

– John C. Maxwell

We need to throw the word “boss” out the window.

Before you start nodding your head, make sure you read that line correctly. You may want to throw your boss out the window, but please fantasise about that after finishing this article. I’m referring to the word itself: boss.

Since leading OIC: The Cambodia Project, I’ve learnt how much this word doesn’t make sense.

Close your eyes and think of the word “boss”. What do you see?

A man smoking a cigar, leaning back in his chair, feet on desk, telling others what to do. We reinforce this idea through movies, but also through the many real life examples of people just like this.

As a younger employee, my notion of leadership was completely wrong. I thought the function of the leader was to tell people what to do. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Being an effective leader is far more challenging, far more complex, and requires a level of humility that belies the cigar-smoking image we commonly think of.

John C. Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership tells a story of Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, that reveals the real nature of leadership. At a conference, Cathy presented every person in the room with what he described as a “leadership relationship development tool”.

“Now this is a nine-inch, 100 percent horsehair shoe brush,” he said. “This is an industrial-strength shoe brush. It’s the best you can get from the Johnston and Murphy Shoe Company.”

Cathy then asked one of the members of the audience to come forward. He knelt down at his feet and started to clean his shoe. Afterwards, Cathy stood up and gave the person a hug.

This is what leadership is. A boss doesn’t kneel down and clean your shoe for you. A leader does.

Source: unknown
Source: unknown

Over the past few years, I’ve learnt about leadership by reading and listening, by modelling behaviour, and by being one and making mistakes. In that time, I’ve busted a few of my own misconceptions on what leadership entails.

Firstly, there is no one singular leader. Ralph Nader said “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” This is why the word “boss” can never encapsulate the complexities of leadership. You cannot have an organisations of 1000 bosses. Too many bosses spoil the broth.

Secondly, the leader is not there to talk, but to listen.

Ever been in meetings where the boss does almost all the talking? We walk away from these meetings with a feeling of not having achieved anything.

My father worked for Westfield, a shopping centre company in Australia, for a number of decades. As a child, I grew up hearing stories of how Frank Lowy, the fourth richest man in Australia, ran meetings. Lowy never chaired meetings. He would have middle managers do the talking.

When he chose to speak, he would ask questions or encourage team members to work together. It’s no wonder that Westfield has achieved explosive growth.

westfield-imgIf everyone in an organisation is a leader, this means that everyone needs to know how to make decisions. Unsurprisingly, it’s not just the boss who is doing it.

In Maureen Broderick’s The Art of Managing Professional Services, 92% of top CEOs interviewed said that their role in the company is to preserve values and culture.

Let’s pause here for a second. The overwhelming majority of CEOs did not state that their job was to tell people what to do. It wasn’t even to provide the direction of the organisation. It was to preserve values and culture.

To understand this more, we need to ask ourselves, “how do we make decisions?”

The answer is simple. We make decisions based on our values.

These CEOs were saying that, through preserving values and culture, they were creating a safe space where people could be part of the decision making process.

Amongst OIC staff and volunteers, we recently discussed how we want to make decisions. There were three possible models identified: Hierarchical, democracy, and consensus.

  • Hierarchical – everyone presents their view, but the boss makes the decision.
  • Democracy – everyone presents their view, and we put it to vote.
  • Consensus – everyone presents their view, and discussion and negotiation continues until everyone is happy with the final decision.

With a boss, hierarchical decision making is the only model that can work. The boss makes the decision because he knows best.

Meanwhile, democracy creates a combative mindset. It encourages factions, and discourages broader thinking. How many times have you watched a pre-election debate and actually changed your mind? Almost never.

Ever come away from a debate having changed your mind? Doubt it. Source: Poitifact
Ever come away from a debate having changed your mind? Doubt it. Source: Poitifact

So what did our team decide? Consensus.

We will not make decisions until everyone is on board with the decision. We will include everyone in the process.

This model cannot exist as long as the outdated notion of the “boss” is around. The boss doesn’t need to include others in decisions made. What the boss says goes.

By contrast, a leader is there to listen, to create a safe space for everyone to make decisions, and to grow leadership amongst the team. I can’t help but think how limiting the word “boss” is and how it stagnates organisations.

What do you think? Do you see any difference between the words boss and leader? I’d be interested to know in the comments.

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