Compliments of JoeinSouthernCA via Flickr

“The best bosses balance performance and humanity, getting things done in ways that enhance rather than destroy dignity and pride” (Sutton, 2010, p. 38).

Last week I learned of a breakthrough innovation within the Nashville Metro School District: Teacher Led Schools. The Jere Baxter Middle School follows the lead of others (e.g., those located in Los Angeles and Milwaukee) that are also experimenting with this empowering concept. Teachers in essence will be “calling the shots;” deciding whom to hire, what type of in-service to offer, and how their schedules should be structured. The rationale is that teachers who are trusted will be happier, and will as a consequence perform better.

Democratic management is not of course a novel concept. It’s rooted in the “teams” notion in which employees within self-managed work groups called the shots. Although it may be difficult to loosen the reigns (especially for directors who thrive on control), they may be surprised at what happens when they take a step back.

In his book Good Boss, Bad Boss (2010), Sutton explains, “The best management is sometimes less management or no management at all” (p. 23). Intrusive, meddlesome bosses who behave like hovercraft not only stifle creativity, but they decrease the “psychological safety” net experienced by those in their unit In other words, workers will spend their time being overly cautious (instead of crafting innovations) if leaders treat them as “guilty,” or “two year olds.”

The good bosses in Sutton’s opinion encourage functional disruption, in which they (1) actively promote discussion of opposing viewpoints; (2) suffer workers who may rub them the wrong way, and (3) engage direct reports in a less than comfortable discussion about what they think could be improved. A total quality focus demands nothing less than your full attention to what is (and what isn’t) working, combined with a dedication to fix the problems. A “blinders on” mentality maintains the status quo, but does little to either outshine the competition or to retain your star employees.  As Fuller (2003) notes, “Oppression is the muse of rebellion.”                                                    

The key is to be participative and not parental. Namie and Namie (2011) offer several warning signs that may apply to “bully bosses.” A few of these are listed below:

  • You are straightforward and honest when evaluating others. Yet, others often misunderstand or do not appreciate your “style.”
  • Fear motivates staff. [Bullies are in a perpetual mode of status inflation at the expense of those they consider “pushovers.” Bad bosses won’t hesitate to throw you under a bus if the purpose suits them].
  • You prize loyalty within the leadership team above all other values [Controllers eavesdrop on others’ conversations. Being a peeping Tom into other people’s business does not however garner you any brownie points].
  • You understand the merits of collaborative decision making, but in the final analysis, and for expediency, the decision is yours.

A good leader realizes that the end game is not to get their own way, or to “win,” but get the job done in manner that makes people feel good about themselves (Sutton, 2010). The rigid one way thinking of authoritarianism must give way to a confluence of ideas from “a team of rivals” who are chomping at the bit for a chance to affect change.



Fuller, R.  W. (2003). Sombodies and the nobodies: Overcoming the abuse of rank. New Society Publishers, Ca.

Namie, G., & Namie, R. F. (2010). The bully-free workplace: Stop snakes, weasels and jerks from killing your organization. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Sutton, R. I. (2010). Good boss bad boss: How to be the best…and learn from the worst. New York: Business Plus.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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