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.”
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.”