The Strong Boss

One of my clients is a strong leader. She is a strategic thinker and as smart as they come. She guides herself and her team to the delivery of consistently great results. Yet, she complains to me that her team fails to think for themselves. As such, she has to maintain a hands-on approach and monitor the team continuously. She finds this tiring and aggravating and wishes she could delegate more. What is happening here?

As I began to interact with my client’s team, I discovered that the team was very good at reacting to direction from the boss. The team understood that the boss highly valued action; therefore, they took direction from the boss and turned that into action as quickly as possible. There was very little need to highlight problems since the boss set the agenda on the important problems to address. Also, the team minimized analysis and planning activities since these activities took time and slowed progress toward action-oriented results.

The leadership style of the Strong Boss created a strong tendency towards action – Git ‘er Done. The team members attracted to this type of organization are those that respond well to that leadership style. For instance, once the boss set the direction, the team found little need for further conversation about the problem that needed solving or the objectives. People quickly organize and figure out how to respond to the boss’s direction. Ideas are generated, but the team finds there was little reward in spending time to analyze the ideas and build plans. Rather, the team simply presents a promising idea to the boss for review and approval. The boss, being the smart strategic person that she is, would be able to quickly assess the idea and approve it, modify it or send the team back to the drawing board. This is the dynamic that the team finds most effective in working with the style of the Strong Boss.

This action-oriented problem-solving style is very effective in that it produces results quickly. One way to characterize this method is as an iterative method. Another description is “Fail Fast.” This is a great methodology to try different approaches and quickly iterate to a successful solution. And, because the leader in this case was as talented as she is, the probability was high that the ideas she directed the team to pursue would be successful. The cost of this approach is that she had to spend a tremendous amount of energy setting direction, reviewing ideas and monitoring results.

In working with this team, I found that I had to start at the end with their long neglected post-mortem project review step of their process. We discussed and determined what was working well and what not so well. Out of this discussion came a list of potential problems that the team considered important to address. Reviewing this list with the Strong Boss, we quickly came into agreement on the important problems that needed to be addressed. The big difference was that the problems were now the team’s problems, not the boss’s problems – the team was highly vested in solving these problems.

Working with the team, I had them spend more time on analyzing different ideas for solutions and putting together a well-thought-out plan before presenting the plan to the boss. The team put together a terrific proposal in which they genuinely held pride. They presented this proposal to the boss who was equally pleased and gave the team permission to move forward, which the team did with considerable enthusiasm.

The Strong Boss learned how her personal leadership style was impacting the performance of the team. The problems she experienced with her team were as much the result of her own behavior as that of her team. By allowing the team some say in choosing the problems to solve, the team delivered great results and took far less oversight from the boss, which made the Strong Boss happy.

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4 thoughts on “The Strong Boss”

  1. Great story, Matt. Question: I can think of a few instances when a ‘strong boss’ is required, such as in war when a mission must be executed quickly or lives are lost. But, in your experience, is it better most of the time for the boss to foster autonomous teams as you describe here? It seems that most people are happier, more productive and far more creative if they feel they have some say in the outcome.

    1. Great points, Loyal. There are certain situations that call for a specific leadership style. If I am charging up a hill with a team of soldiers, I would definitely want a real Strong Boss-type, behaving like a Strong Boss-type, leading the way.

      In the case I describe in the blog, the Strong Boss became aware of the limitation of the style and realized how it restricted both her own and her team’s growth. I think that that is the first step. If the Strong Boss does not have that realization for whatever reason, say they are in the middle of fighting a war, for instance, then there will be no motivation for a transformation. There would be no need either.

      As a team member working under a Strong Boss, you would need to assess for yourself whether it is an environment suitable for you. In fact, some people enjoy working for a Strong Boss since the Strong Boss will take all the responsiblity and the heat, making their own life easier. Others will not be satisfied in that situation and will feel like they are simply order takers. Each team member has to determine what is right for themselves.

  2. Having used this style exclusively in the past, I know how addicting it can be. It gets results, and that tends to fool such a leader into thinking they are successful. But it’s not a sustainable or scalable model for creating results as it is limited by the capacity of the “strong boss”. With increased self-awareness I’ve been able to choose roles that are more facilitative and less “official leader”, and thus have come to trust the wisdom of the team. Now I realize that growing strong team members who don’t need direction, and even becoming unnecessary to the team’s results-producing process, is a higher impact form of leadership. Today I had a chance to practice this with 16 extraordinary professionals, and they did not disappoint! They felt comfortable enough to ask me to leave the room so they could discuss an important decision just with the team members, and when they emerged I sensed they’d made much more progress than simply one decision. I count this as one of the big successes of my leadership life!

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