We’ve all had our fair share of average bosses. We don’t learn much from them, but at least our work life isn’t miserable.
We’ve also had a few terrible ones. They’re quite memorable, aren’t they? We actually learn a lot from them. Mainly, we learn how not to follow their example and become a terrible boss ourselves.
I can count the number of amazing managers I had on one hand. Thanks to them, I learned how a great manager behaves. I observed how they treated their teams and other management peers. We delivered amazing results because they inspired us to bring our very best to work every day.
If you are considering a move into management, you may wonder if you have what it takes to become a great boss yourself. Here are 10 beliefs and behaviors that separate the great bosses from the bad ones.
Invincible Career® is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
1. You treat everyone with respect
Some people let power go to their heads. They think that reaching a certain level of authority now means treating more junior people like crap. They fear being seen as soft or weak.
I witnessed this when an individual contributor was promoted into a more senior role with some supervisory authority over others. They weren’t even officially managing a team of their own yet, but you could tell that it wasn’t going to work out. Someone who had been kind and considerate as a peer suddenly became domineering and rude with that taste of power.
But, being kind and respectful isn’t weak. It’s called being a decent human being.
My best managers treated everyone with respect, no matter what their job was in the company. My worst bosses acted like most people were beneath them. If you weren’t at a certain level, you weren’t worth the time of day.
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you believe that everyone is worthy of your respect, regardless of their level or job. You don’t reserve your respect only for the people more senior than you.
2. You believe in compassion
Great bosses believe in compassionate leadership and know that compassion does not equate to weakness as a leader. I worked with Jeff Weiner when I was at Yahoo. When he was still the CEO of LinkedIn, he talked about compassionate leadership and how it manifests daily in your job as a manager and leader.
Essentially, being a compassionate leader means that you truly strive to understand others’ perspectives, points of view, and even their feelings. For example, rather than assuming the worst during a conflict with someone, you instead assume that they are a rational, sane, and decent human being.
Ask yourself why they might want what they do. Why would a rational person behave this way?
You don’t respond to anger with anger. You don’t respond to sadness or frustration by becoming sad or frustrated yourself.
That’s the key difference between compassion and empathy. When you operate with compassion, you seek to understand why they feel a certain way, but you don’t let yourself get drawn into that emotion. More importantly, you also seek to help this person and address the issue.
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you truly listen to others when they share concerns, understand how they feel, care enough to help, and actually do something to address the issues.
That does not mean that you will always do what they want (e.g., “Bob annoys me and I want you to fire him”). Instead, you take the time to objectively evaluate the situation and decide the best course of action.
3. You communicate openly and honesty
Great bosses believe in open and honest communication, in both directions. They are honest with their team, and they expect people to be honest with them, too. It’s ok if you have to share bad news with this type of boss. They don’t punish the messenger.
Bad bosses seem to thrive on secrecy and manipulation. They believe that knowledge is power, so they keep it to themselves. They control the pipeline of information tightly. They’re also OK with being dishonest if it gets the job done.
Great bosses are honest, even if the information they need to share won’t be easy to hear (e.g., constructive criticism). Of course, there are times that you can’t always share everything all the time. But, you can be honest about that too.
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you already have a personal philosophy of being open and honest with others. You’re ahead of the curve if you’re able to initiate difficult conversations, deliver honest feedback in the spirit of truly being helpful, and play the mediator when colleagues need help finding mutually-beneficial solutions.
4. You have courage and conviction
Great bosses believe in standing up to executive leadership when necessary and taking a stand on important issues vs. being a “Yes person.” I’m not saying that this is easy or that it doesn’t come with some risk.
Standing up to a senior exec may put your job in jeopardy, and I’ve experienced this firsthand. I’ve also witnessed courageous leaders being terminated for doing what was right.
Here is what talented leaders know; there is always a new opportunity just around the corner. Great leaders are always in high demand. The smart ones have developed a strong network, kept active in the industry, and know that they can get job offers in a few weeks by making some calls.
They also know that losing a job is a temporary setback. But if they don’t behave with courage and conviction, they will feel terrible about it forever. If you stick to your principles and follow your moral compass, you’ll still believe in yourself no matter what happens (e.g., getting fired).
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you already believe that relationships last far beyond the walls of any given company. You know that jobs come and go.
You have discovered that when you act with integrity, people remember. People want to work with you again. Some people are already making comments that they would like to work for you.
5. You believe in clear goals
Great bosses believe in setting clear goals and expectations so that people know exactly what they need to do to succeed. They don’t tolerate fuzzy commands coming down from on high either.
They’ve suffered under slippery bosses before and learned that ambiguity is a career killer.
“Part of a leader’s job is to reduce ambiguity. It’s one thing to be good at handling ambiguity, but that doesn’t mean they should encourage ambiguity. It doesn’t mean that they should use ambiguity as an excuse for fuzzy goals and amorphous role requirements. Leaders who do that are often undisciplined, lazy, ignorant, and trying to avoid conflict. No one wins in that situation.” — Larry Cornett
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you already have a habit of establishing clear goals for yourself, and you believe that’s how everyone should operate. No mysteries.
6. You help nurture a healthy team culture
Great bosses know that healthy team culture is important for the office to feel like a good place to be and for people to do their best work. Culture isn’t about wearing a fun hat on “Casual Friday” or making sure people have time to play foosball. Great bosses know that a healthy culture is reflected in how everyone communicates, behaves, and treats one another.
They also believe in swiftly dealing with morale issues before they get out of hand. Most of us are familiar with those coworkers who love to gossip, refuse to do any work that isn’t specifically in their job description, act entitled, steal credit for others’ work, throw their colleagues under the bus, and generally bring the whole team down with their attitude.
Great bosses don’t let this problem linger. They work with such employees to address the behavior, or they show them to the door.
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you already have your finger on the organization's pulse and can tell when things are going well vs. not. You’re probably one of the people on the team who knows what it takes to maintain a healthy culture and actively work to do so, even though “it isn’t your job.”
7. You want everyone to succeed
It should be no surprise that great bosses recognize and reward talent. They often invest in and carefully manage their star performers since they know that a truly amazing employee can often be 10–100X more productive than an average employee.
“A hacker on a roll may be able to produce–in a period of a few months–something that a small development group (say, 7–8 people) would have a hard time getting together over a year. IBM used to report that certain programmers might be as much as 100 times as productive as other workers, or more.” — Peter Seebach
However, great bosses also believe in helping low performers get the help they need to improve. Help everyone be more successful, and the entire organization and company will be more successful. But, the definition of success varies from person to person.
Sometimes you help people succeed by taking them out of a role that is a bad fit for them. Believe it or not, there are times that you can improve someone’s long-term career success by respectfully helping them move on to another job in another company.
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you already understand that people should be working in the roles where they have the greatest chance of success. You also believe in win-win situations vs. striving for your own success at someone else’s expense.
8. You provide constructive feedback to others
Great bosses believe in the power of positive feedback. They also know how to deliver constructive criticism in a way that isn’t demoralizing.
Some of the best bosses I worked for helped me grow by showing me areas where I needed to improve, but they always did this in a way that made me believe that they truly cared about me.
Great bosses also give credit where credit is due. They don’t steal their employees’ thunder or claim their work. They know that their success as a leader lies in their team doing great work. So they’re happy to share the spotlight.
On the flip side, they don’t blame their employees for things not going well. They accept the responsibility. They make it their problem.
Sure, it really could be an employee’s mistake. But a great boss will deal with that later in a private one-on-meeting with that person.
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you already behave this way with your coworkers and even your own boss. You give people positive feedback and share constructive criticism when they need to hear it. You give your teammates credit for great work, and you don’t blame others for your mistakes.
9. You respect people’s personal lives
Great bosses believe that employees deserve a personal life and shouldn’t always be working crazy hours (even though it may occasionally be necessary). They will encourage personal boundaries and ensure that their employees are taking time to rest, be with family, and have fun with friends.
All work and no play burns people out.
You can tell how someone will behave as a manager and leader when working with them on a challenging project. I’ve partnered with some people who were quite reasonable about the hours we’d put into a project, taking breaks when necessary, and not intruding on personal time.
But, I’ve also worked with colleagues who didn’t respect personal boundaries. They’d demand that we all meet at the office over the weekend. They’d call me at night when I was home with my family. You can imagine what a dreamboat boss they would be if you ended up reporting to them.
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you believe in working hard when it’s time to work but drawing the line when it’s time to be away from the office. Someone has great management potential when they are looking out for others, too (e.g., suggesting that people deserve a break or should go home before midnight).
10. You’re why people look forward to work
Finally, great bosses change what work means. There was always one clear clue that I was working for a great boss:
I was glad that they were in the office.
You know that feeling. When you have a great boss, or even a good one, you are happy to see them in the office. You feel like things are going to be ok. You know that they are there if you need help or advice.
We have similar feelings about great colleagues. You enjoy working with them, and not just because you like them. You’re glad they’re in the office because they know how to get stuff done. They add value to meetings. They make everyone’s work-life a little bit better.
You can tell that you’d make a great boss if you’re already one of these people. You’ll notice when others light up when you enter the room.
You’ll see them smile when you join a meeting because they know that you add real value. People will even tell you that they’ve appreciated working with you on a project, and they will actively seek you out to work with them on their next project.
Good people can become great bosses
I made so many mistakes when I became a manager for the first time. I learned from them, got training, and read management and leadership books. I got a little better.
Guess what? I made all new mistakes as I moved up into more senior levels of management.
Every level of leadership presents unique challenges. All that you can do is constantly be open to improvement.
I’ll never claim to be the best boss in the world. I still make mistakes. But, I do care, and I always want to get better.
Almost anyone has the potential to be a great boss. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but these are things that can be learned over time. You have to care enough — really care — to want to be one.
There are resources for learning how to be a better leader and getting the support you need to grow. That’s a critical point:
Great bosses are great leaders.
The word “boss” has negative connotations (e.g., bossing people around). A “manager” manages a team, processes, and workflow.
A manager isn’t always a great leader, though. To become great, you have to embrace becoming a leader, not just a boss or manager.
If you are lucky, your leadership development can start with your own boss. You can learn a great deal by paying attention to how they operate.
But, if your immediate boss or manager isn’t really a great leader, then look across your organization and company. Is there someone else who could be a mentor? This is obviously easier in larger companies.
Otherwise, you will have to look outside of the company. Who are the great leaders in your industry or profession? It’s much easier to follow someone, read what they write, hear them speak, and watch them present than it was decades ago.
Observe and learn.
Of course, I’m biased, but I do believe that one-on-one guidance is one of the best ways for you to develop your management and leadership skills. Sometimes you can find someone willing to spend their free time mentoring you. But, other times, you need to hire a leadership coach.
I’m glad that I worked with leadership coaches when I was a corporate executive. They helped me a great deal with my professional development. They guided me, gave me honest feedback, and wanted the best for me.
That coaching was a turning point in my career.
If you’ve read to this point, you obviously care about becoming a great boss or manager. That’s a good sign, and any team would be lucky to have you.
Good luck with pursuing your promotion!
This week’s professional development challenge
⭐ Face Your Biggest Fears
- Put them to rest with a plan of action