National Boss Day, which is celebrated by someone, somewhere on October 16, honors "superiors for being kind and fair throughout the year," according to our doughty friends at Wikipedia. "Kind and fair" are good and nice--but most bosses aspire to more than that. Most bosses want to be great.
As a business journalist and perpetual underling, I have been fortunate to observe some truly top-notch bossing in my career. And I've been thinking about what qualities--in addition to the usual skills of motivation, communication, and organization--distinguish my own personal exemplars of the discipline. Here is my list of the universal habits of great bosses.
Great bosses get the small picture. Every employee carries around in his head a map of the company's priorities--and every one of those maps is different from the leader's 30,000-foot view. Great bosses never forget that employees experience things locally, from the trenches of IT or accounting or sales. In words and action, great bosses take account of those perspectives.
Great bosses make people feel smart. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, there are such things as bad ideas. Employees have them all the time. Great bosses, when presented in a meeting or in private conversation with some enthusiastic but misguided bit of twaddle, listen carefully for the tiniest germ of potential. Seizing that germ, they talk it through--teasing it, tweezing it, rearranging it--until they produce something workable and smart. So deft is this transfiguration that the employee believes it is still his own idea and walks away beaming.
Great bosses know who does what. There is no i in team, but there is an i in underappreciated, which is how people feel when their individual contributions disappear into the common collaborative slurry. Great bosses talk often with managers about how individuals are doing, but also about specifically what they're doing. Running into employees by the copier, such bosses make unforced appreciative reference to those recent accomplishments. The result: See "walks away beaming," above.
Great bosses know when they're not wanted. Good bosses delegate. Great ones don't hang around in the background monitoring how that delegation is going. Good bosses take employees along on important trips. Great bosses give those fellow travelers time alone. Good bosses walk around the office talking to people. Great ones do that too, but in measured doses. Even the most unassuming boss should recognize that in the glow of his attention employees become eager to impress, careful of their words, mildly uncomfortable.
Great bosses remember. Employees' hobbies. Their families' names. Who plays what position on the company softball team. Who is terrified of flying. Who has expressed interest in a leadership role.
And employees, in return, remember them.
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large.