The other day my daughter complained about her friend. “Mom, she was being so bossy, telling me how to do it,” she said. “I knew how to do it – and anyway, she’s not the boss of me!” It was one of those great parenting moments when you want to laugh but you have to keep a straight face and help your child think through a suitable solution. The discussion got me thinking about what bossiness has to do with being the boss, and I remembered a time when I was a bossy boss myself. I believed that, as the boss, I had authority over employees, and that being the boss meant exercising that authority. Back then I thought that was the way to manage, but now I wonder: is there a place for bossiness when you’re the boss?
In my own stumbling first steps as a new manager, I wanted to be seen as a “natural” leader – trying to please my manager and the executives in my group, and wanting respect from the people I was managing, without having much of a clue as to what I should be doing to manage appropriately and effectively. I can admit today that my move from a strong individual contributor to a young manager of others was not a smooth journey.
I spent much of my day telling people what to do. If a team member came in with a question, I gave them an answer, with little discussion. If I had a task needing attention, I assigned it to someone with specific instructions on what to do and how to do it. I viewed all work deliverables through the lens of what I would do and how I would do it, and expected to see the same approach and standards from others. I relied heavily on the team members I got along with and who were strong performers and dreaded interacting with members of my team whom I considered shirkers not workers. I was “acting like the boss” (or how I thought a boss should act) instead of letting others step up to do their best, and being and leading as myself.
Once I understood, with coaching from my manager and a trusted mentor, that my role was not to tell people what to do but rather to set up an environment where my team could contribute, produce results, and thrive, I stopped being “bossy” and developed much stronger relationships, even with the former shirkers! Looking back, I laugh at how hard I was trying to please, gain respect, and exhibit authority instead of focusing on being an authentic leader. My experiences as a new manager truly started me down a path of learning – about myself, about leadership, about life in an organization – and that learning continues today. Those first leadership lessons though, I consider the most essential in my growth: look within (self-awareness is key), trust yourself (you know more than you think you do), ease up on yourself and others (it doesn’t have to be quite so serious and you don’t have to, and can’t, always get everything right), and seek support and guidance without hesitation (no need to go it alone!).
My early experiences taught me that you don’t have to be bossy to be the boss. Instead, by being open to learning and developing and building trusting effective relationships with your employees, not only is there no place for bossiness but there is no need for bossiness. That’s when you’re a leader not a boss. Bossiness then can be left to the schoolyard bullies.
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