Being the Boss

There’s a big difference between being smart and helping other people be smart.

A great boss helps the people s/he supervises become smarter and more capable. Unfortunately, the reasons why an employee is promoted to a supervisory position sometimes have little to do with supervisory skills. Often, the promotion reflects longevity and content skill rather than supervisory skill. And that makes sense.

Content skill is essential. An entrepreneur’s content skill – say her ability to write grants or organize strategic planning – will be enough to launch a business but won’t be enough to sustain it. A successful entrepreneur needs business management skill as well. How does one grow a business? Develop relationships? Manage investments? And survive failure and success?

The same is true with nonprofit or government managers. The content skill that got them to the big leagues won’t be enough to score the runs. The successful boss knows how to identify, develop, and launch the brilliance of his/her staff. There are volumes written on this topic but here are some observations from my work as a boss and my years of experience as an observer of boss/employee relationships.

To be a great boss, you need to:

  • Absolutely believe you are in the right job (you are not an imposter);
  • Lead, nurture and develop everyone you supervise (not just the willing but also the difficult, recalcitrant, and snarky);
  • Compete with your peers (not with your staff); and
  • Enjoy your work – every day in a different way.


I was a great boss but only with people who would have been fabulous without any supervision. I loved offering opportunities for those folks to shine, giving them challenging projects, and coaching them to overcome their fears. I didn’t do so well with people who were unenthused about work and very reluctant to put the time in needed to do great work. I never figured out how to inspire those employees. This was my shortcoming.

A lot of very valuable human capital is held back by bosses who are smart but don’t know how to help their employees be smart. Is this you?