The Myth of the Mean Boss — Why Do We Think a Good Leader Has to Be a Jerk?

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“Crack the whip. It’s the only way to get things done.”

“Show them who’s boss.”

Who came up with this crap?

I sat down today to do some research for a forthcoming book project on leadership and management styles that I’m working on and a sudden thought occurred to me: When did we, the workers of America, collectively agree that bosses had to be jerks?

Why do we think that to be a good boss, you have to be autocratic, dictatorial, and mean?

It’s woven into our cultural consciousness. Mr. Burns from The Simpsons may be a parody, but parodies only carry resonance when they are grounded in a shared understanding of the basis of the parody.

Whatever happened to kindness? Compassion? Clear communication and direction with a dash of humor and friendliness?

Perhaps my expectations are too high. I have, after all, had the pleasure of working with some extraordinary mentors and leaders. I hesitate to call them bosses because in no sense of the word did they ‘boss me around’ or tell me what to do.

Rather, they taught. Guided. Shared. Listened. Encouraged. One pushed me out on stage in front of 250 colleagues at a global conference. Sitting in the front row was the CEO. I had declined to present at the conference because I was terrified of making an ass out of myself on stage in front fo 250 colleagues and the CEO. Instead, Joe, my boss — my mentor, my coach, my teacher — handed back the sheaf of presentation boards I had prepared for his talk, turned me around to face the stage, and literally pushed me by the shoulders so that I had to step into the spotlight.

“Go on,” he urged, “You can do it!”

I was the only thing standing between 250 tired people and the lunch to be served in the ballroom next door. I took a deep breath, swallowed, blinked against the hot spotlights, and opened the presentation boards.

Fifteen minutes later, sweating through my suit, I stumbled offstage to thunderous applause. Joe led the cheers. The marketing presentation was a huge success and he had launched my future C-level career in marketing, giving me the confidence to present before audiences of my peers, state level politicans and more.

This is the kind of boss we all need. The kind of leader and mentor who knows our strengths and weaknesses and knows when we back down from a challenge out of fear. The kind of leader who pushes his team to excel even when they don’t want to, and the kind of leader who claps the loudest when others succeed.

They exist. They really do. They aren’t myths. I know because I’ve had a boss like that.

If, unlike unicorns and honest politicians they actually do exist, then why do we settle for less?

Why do we buy into the myth of the boss who must always be a jerk?

I look back in history for the answers. The paternalistic, directive-led approach to management exemplified by the industrial revolution factories accounts for much of our modern management culture (and our education system, for that matter, but I’ll set that aside for another essay).

American industry has often been characterized by the factory model. Since its founding, America has led the way in innovation and production. Her factories were the envy of other nations, models of innovation and efficiency.

Those factories ran on the notion of a pyramid structure of management. The leader or boss at the apex of the pyramid had the knowledge, skills, and experience to know what to do and when to do it. Not always safely, mind you, but the owners of the factory trusted him (and it was almost always a male) to dictate to others down the line what to do next.

The line workers were often poorly educated men who held repetitive jobs. Think of line workers producing Model T Fords; one man welded on a bumper, another put the wheels on. Over and over until he thought his back would break.

Such leaders or bosses couldn’t afford to be nice guys. Their jobs were judged on the number of automobiles produced, coal mined, or widgets made. To achieve their target numbers, their only recourse was to make the method of procution — the factory workers — work harder and faster.

Psychologists tell us that most people are motivated by rewards or punishment, the proverbial carrot or stick. The factory boss lacked the carrot to entice their workers to production other than the carrot of “You can come back tomorrow to the same back breaking labor and be glad of it”. Not very motivating.

That left the stick of punishment. Fear-based leadership. Do as I say, now, and do it when I tell you, or you’ll be out of job.

Men complied.

Bosses bossed, and barked, and that was considered leadership. Autocratic leadership was the model paraded before most of us who can remember a time before the internet. Many of us over-50 types had parents or grandparents who worked in such environments.

Leaders led; workers complied. It was the way of the world.

Until it wasn’t.

“people sitting on chair in front of table while holding pens during daytime” by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

The push for college educated workers came about slowly, then in a rush, then in a flood from the businesses of America. I remember sitting next to a man on a flight back from Atlanta sometime in the late 1990s. He owned a rubber factory that made all sorts of rubber things — gaskets for refrigerators, parts for cars, you name it. He lamented not being able to find enough well-educated people interested in working for his rubber factory.

“I need thinkers, not doers!” He scared me by thumping the arm rest of the airplane seat so hard his fist turned white.

He’s not alone. Machine replaced men putting tires and bumpers on cars; robotics led the way and show no sign of slowing down. Today’s factories use enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools that far surpass any amount of information a single manager could collect on his own. Decision-making in an ERP environment is often collective, consultative, and creative, rather than directional; top-down doesn’t work when everyone can log into the ERP and look up the data for themselves.

In our information age, when automation has replaced the human cog in the wheel and well-educated workers now flood the factory floor making decisions based on data, there is little room for autocratic, order-barking bosses.

Our current low unemployment rates mean that it is a job seeker’s market. If you treat your employees and staff like serfs they’ll seek work elsewhere.

The entrance of women into the workforce has also forced a change in acceptable management and leadership styles. You cannot generalize that women always lean towards a compassionate, benevolent leadership style but by and large they prefer consensus building and collaboration to order-giving and mindless followers.

Offices in the 21st century typically revolve around computer-based work; most of us spend our days staring at monitors instead of production lines. You’re just as likely to find the secretary holds a college degree as the boss. She probably knows more, too, about how the business runs and has something to say about the latest financial reports.

Everywhere, workers are better educated, better connected, and self-motivated. We need our jobs just as much today as we did 100 years ago when losing a factory job meant going hungry; living paycheck to paycheck is the same in 2018 as it was in 1918, except today at least we have unemployment insurance.

The stick of fear of unemployment hasn’t changed, but we respond better to carrots of kindness and praise. We don’t need to be beaten with the stick of fear. It lurks within every student loan bill, mortgage payment or car repair invoice.

Research has demonstrated that kindness and compassion achieve better job performance than an autocratic style. Isn’t it time we ditch our old models of leadership and embrace kindness?

Instead of showing someone who is boss, show them who is a leader. Let’s embrace a kinder, gentler style of management for the 21st century.

I’m a former marketing executive who quit a stressful city job, moved to a rural farm, and fell in love with nature. Writer, gardener, content creator.

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