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It’s National Boss Day. Let’s End This Tradition.

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National Boss Day comes once a year. This is tradition we need to end, because it illustrates a key problem at work.

Why don’t I like National Boss Day? It’s not just because I don’t like arbitrary holidays, but because the phenomenon of “the boss” is one of the biggest reasons we can’t improve productivity or address challenges in workplace culture. We are a nation of people whose lives are dominated by bosses. According to a recent study, “56% of Americans say their relationship with their boss has a direct impact on work-life happiness.”

From Flickr User Nieve44/Luz

© Flickr user Nieve44/Luz

Furthermore, there’s the source of word “boss.” From an old Moneywatch column:

Boss is Dutch in origin and is a bastardization of the Dutch “base.” Its use was a uniquely American way of avoiding the word “master,” which had quickly become associated with slavery by the mid-19th century.

Urban workers were fond of using ‘boss’ primarily because they despised calling their superior ‘master.’ Ironically, all the effort was in vain. The meaning of the Dutch word, “base” is “master.” And it all comes back full circle…

Even if we avoid using this term, other euphemisms are rooted in control and mistrust. A “supervisor” means that someone else needs to look over your work. A “director” implies you need direction. Even clever ways to restate the title are designed to show authority and diminish our own role: “top dog”, “head honcho” or “higher up.”

That’s not to say that organizations don’t need patterns where someone has final authority. Obviously you need to the ability to delegate. But we shouldn’t be celebrating the fact that we have a boss. Instead, we should celebrate leadership.

I’m reminded of what former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky used to say about being a technical manager. To paraphrase:

If two programmers ask me to resolve a technical dispute, I always refuse. My job is to help people learn to work together and communicate, not to pick winners and losers and pit people against each other.

A great boss isn’t a “boss.” They coordinate rather than mandate work. They ask questions as much as they give answers. And they focus most on inspiration and support as the hallmark of real leadership.

To quote Antoine de Saint-Expuery:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Let’s end National Boss Day. We don’t need to celebrate the uneasy relationship between master and subordinate. We need to focus on results through leadership. No worthwhile leader worries about being called “boss.”

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


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@BigLiciousT Not for you or in your field, but for many people it will subconsciously communicate they can email yo… - 1 week ago
Robby Slaughter
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  • C Robinson

    You’ve made excellent points on how the organizational hierarchy has changed for many of us. For those who do not need a literal supervisor to ensure every jot and tittle is performed, the rest of us should and can carry the burden of “ownership” and “responsibility” towards our job function.

    Just like computer hard drive “folders” as an organizing system are gradually being replaced by semantic tags, a more semantically led workplace is more liberating (free from undue bureaucratic constraints), more efficient, more intrinsically rewarding (for the “owner” of his/her role and accomplishments), and more powerful (the potential expands drastically). Leadership, which is as necessary as a General giving direction on the battlefield, then becomes a whole new entity.

    I’m fortunate to work under an aspect of this new workplace paradigm: where I work more as a partner to my “boss” who I see as a leader for whom I want to help succeed, excel, and surprise. All of which are much more satisfying than reporting to a supervisor-employee role each work day. Though, I haven’t seen these dynamics roll out to the rest of corporate America yet (or the rest of the world).

    Additionally, there are most likely ways to apply the semantic tagging Information Architecture concept and potentials toward this type of workplace dynamic. Definitely an area that will continue to evolve and help us do more for our organizations.

    All that to say thanks for the timely article. Maybe the day could be renamed “National Leaders’ Day” to inspire a greater level of workplace leadership across the nation?

  • rslaughter

    Thanks for your comments, Christopher!

    Ultimately I don’t think the problem is one of hierarchy, but one of emphasis. Most organizations emphasize control and secrecy, when they should be emphasizing results and innovation. The former requires that you keep information hidden and micromanage work. The latter is more concerned with pointing people in the right direction and expecting failure to be part of the process.

    I’d be fine with a National Leaders’ Day, but really every day is one in which we should celebrate leadership. And you don’t have to be the person who is higher up in the hierarchy to be a leader—you just have to be someone who is taking responsibility and authority for getting things done.

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