It’s been more than sixteen years since I’ve had a boss. When we started The Table Group in 1997, for the first time in my career I found myself reporting to no one. It’s a situation faced by many CEOs, as well as church pastors, school principals and other organizational leaders who are largely unmanaged.
For some, this may sound desirable, not having to be accountable to anyone on a day–to–day basis. In reality, it can be unsatisfying and lonely. Which is why I believe that effective leaders at the top of organizations allow themselves to be managed by the people who are in the best position to do so: their direct reports.
Let me be clear about what I mean. I’m certainly not suggesting that a leader abdicate responsibility for running his or her organization. And I’m not advocating some sort of democratic structure of checks and balances that limits the authority of a CEO. That’s the purpose of a board of directors. What I’m talking about is leaders knowing that there are times and situations in which they should be accountable, even subordinate, to the people they lead.
Consider that most CEOs have more than one role. In addition to being responsible for the execution of the organization’s goals (remember, that’s what the 'E' stands for), they usually serve in at least one other function that corresponds to their skill set. For instance, Steve Jobs was Apple’s head of design, and Bill Gates ran engineering at Microsoft.
At my small firm, beyond my role as president, I am the company’s writer and speaker. I have learned that when I am writing and speaking, I am no longer the president, but I’m working at the behest of the two people in my organization who run the writing and speaking parts of our business respectively. They are my bosses, and in those moments I become their employee.
Now, the point of this essay is not to portray myself as being particularly humble or egalitarian, or to encourage others to do so. Not at all. What I am really trying to say is that working for others in the organization is one of the most enjoyable and liberating things I do for myself. For one, it allows me to let someone else drive the bus for a while, freeing me from making every decision. Second, it allows me to enjoy the sense of accomplishment and approval that all employees look for when they do a job well.
Though it surprises her, I get a real sense of satisfaction when my in–house editor says “this article you’ve written is right on the mark.” And when I deliver a keynote address, the second person I go to — after the client — to understand if I did well is the head of my speaking business. I mean it when I say that at that moment she is my boss and it feels good to receive approval from her.
This very essay is an example of what I’m talking about. It was submitted — by me — to an informal group of people in my office, headed by the in–house editor, who tell me whether or not they think it is well–written and appropriate for our audience. If you believe these POVs are generally of high quality, you can thank them because they often reject my submissions and send me back to the drawing board. And I love when they do, because I feel like I am being managed and held accountable, something many leaders don’t experience enough.
But I’m not going to lie. There are times that I wish my staff would approve of everything I do. On the other hand, I realize that my status as their boss might sometimes impede their ability to be as tough on me as they might be with any other employee. So I have to ensure that I honor their guidance and their authority. I know that when I let them manage me, the organization benefits from a better product, I grow as a leader, and I have a sense of satisfaction in my work that I haven’t experienced since I had a real boss.
Well, it’s time to turn this in to the committee. If you’re reading it, it means that they approved, or at the very least, that it’s gone through many rounds of editing. My bosses can be real hard–asses sometimes.