Being The Boss

I was a reporter in a newspaper bureau, covering the county school system and writing stories about things like dress codes, standardized test scores and school board politics.

I enjoyed it but grew bored after a couple of years. I was pretty sure I wanted to be an editor. Or, more specifically, in charge.

When one of the designers in the office built an internal website for employees to get to know each other better, she had us fill out a survey that included our plans for the future.

I answered, “The boss of you.”

I cannot imagine what people thought when I actually became their boss. Had the roles been reversed, I would have done all manner of creative things to make “the boss of me” miserable.

Fortunately for me, my first employees were patient and forgiving, finding ways to teach me how to teach others.

That was more than 10 years ago and I have held several other positions between then and today. What I’ve learned as I’ve matured is that being the boss is not synonymous with being in charge, and being in charge is not synonymous with being happy.

In a culture that financially rewards “the boss”, it is difficult to come to this conclusion. Even more so to hold onto it. When Facebook’s Sharyl Sandberg tells us to “lean in” in the boardroom so we can ultimately direct it, the assumption is we wanted that position in the first place.

What if we don’t?

As a culture, we need to redefine what it means to be successful. Living a successful life should be about living an inspired one. Ambition should come in the pursuit of happiness. Men, women, all of us. But women, in particular, are in a good position to lead this charge.

Because we have had to struggle for our place in the workforce, many of us have become myopic. We have had to make choices. We have had to let go of some of the things – including our own families – that bring us the most profound joy. We are trying so hard to win at a game we didn’t conceive that many of us have forgotten what it is we wanted in the first place.

To create. To be heard. To help. To love.

The end game, we must realize, is not to become the boss. Not necessarily.

The end game is to become ourselves.

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13 thoughts on “Being The Boss

  1. I would be miserable being in charge. I’m one of those people who expects people to know what their jobs are, show up, and do them. (gasp!) However, I get irritated when my valid ideas and suggestions get dismissed because they were not thought of by someone who’s in charge. A difficult place to walk in. And yes, success is relative.

  2. I am wary of innocence, which, as my shrink says, is evil. When admonish, “As a culture, we need to redefine what it means to be successful,” it appears you refer to those of us living in the successful part of it. “Living a successful life should be about living an inspired one” is a lovely and innocent thought, for those of us fortunate enough to do so. However, many—most—do not enjoy this luxury. Their pursuits are far less than boardrooms, or even happiness, but the everyday, stressful pursuits of making ends meet, feeding their children, getting affordable healthcare and housing, and living with dignity.

    • My grandfather was top of mind when writing this. He left school after the fourth grade and lived in poverty most of his life, but somehow he and my grandmother managed to send two sons to college. When he lay dying in his house (purchased for him by my father when the state took his home to expand a highway) , he said, “I came into this world with nothing, and I leave with nothing.” Not a single member of my family believes he died with nothing. He may very well be the most successful man I have ever known. To do what he did for his family, with not a dime to his name, without a background of support, is a tremendous measure of success. His “career”, if you are curious: He was laid off from a manufacturing job, then took a position as a security guard, then later worked in a hospital mail room.

  3. The headline on Time magazine’s Sharyl Sandberg story is: don’t hate her because she is successful. Your message, Knight, was my reaction to that headline. Is she successful? Or is the most popular measure of that ridiculously narrow?

    • To give context to Arienne’s comment: She was the designer who asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up. My response – “The Boss of You” – was trumped by hers: “Trophy Wife”.

  4. Long ago, I wanted to be a ladder climber, and I did climb for a good long while. But along the way I discovered that you need to find what you truly like doing and do that because it makes you happy. There’s nothing better than getting up in the morning and thinking “They’re going to pay me for having fun all day. It can’t get any better.” Some can be a boss, and a good one, but not most people who become one. You have to care as much or more for your people than you do the company. Most companies don’t appreciate that when you really care about your people as friends more than as colleagues, they’ll cross mountains for you.

  5. There’s perhaps an implied “Peter Principle” comment in here: promoting people to one step above what they can actually do well — only from the other direction: ladder-climbing to one step (or more) above where one really enjoyed the work. I ran from big-corporation work when I realized I’d spend years at a time trying to grab the next pay scale. (Woohoo, grade band 92! What’s next? Grade band 93, you say? In three to fives years? Fun!) Long-term, it sounded very rat race, if I slowed down enough to ponder it. Now I’m in my second round of being the boss, but I enjoy it immensely more by letting employees make as many of the decisions as possible and staying out of their way. And it’s still slightly more “the boss” than my personality prefers, but it works okay most of the time.

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