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Good Bosses

Chris Farrell Jul 8, 2011

The boss doesn’t look good in the movie Horrible Boss. Well, what makes for a good boss? We turned to Warren Bennis for some insight–with good reason.

“Warren Bennis is America’s leading thinker on business leadership, and one of the grand old men of American academia,” wrote the Schumpeter columnist for the Economist last year. (Schumpeter elaborated on the idea of creative destruction, the process by which new technologies, new markets, and new organizations supplant the old.) Bennis is the author of a number of books including Leaders, which the Financial Times named one of the top 50 business books of all time.

Born in 1925 to working class parents in New Jersey, his latest book is the memoir Still Surprised. It covers the story of a World War Two veteran who like so many of his generation used the GI Bill to attend college, an experience that opened up a numerous opportunities for the student of leadership.

Bennis is the Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. His website is here.

Warren Bennis: My favorite leadership author of all time has never shown up in the “New York Times Bestseller List,” possibly because his language was dense, more likely because he never had a good agent. One of his critics thought his fatal flaw was that he wouldn’t know a sound bite if he bumped into one.

Regardless, I would put Will Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I up against any of today’s leadership books, despite the fact that he was putting quill to paper over 400 years ago. He opened one scene with the overbearing Welsh seer, Glendower, boasting to Hotspur that he could call the spirits from the “vasty deep”. Hotspur, always quick on the draw when it came to puffery, retorted, “Well, so can I. So can anyone. But will they come when they’re called?”

I think that is the question of leaders, most especially good ones. Good bosses draw people to them; if you “have it,” they will come.

To illustrate this point, I’m going to tell three stories about how exemplary leaders embody a quality that drew people to them. These three portraits account for some of the key factors that define a good boss.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, less than 2 years into his 4th term.

The funeral procession shortly after midnight, April 13 drew throngs of citizens onto Pennsylvania Ave in Washington D.C. Crowds were so thick that there was no space for stands or chairs. Everybody stood. The cortege moved slowly with dozens of horse drawn carriages, marching bands and troops from every conceivable sector of American life, from the Boy Scouts to the Daughters of the American Revolution. When the hearse drew up to one section a well-dressed, middle aged man collapsed to the ground, sobbing, out of control. He tried to gain his composure, stood up, scuffed and erect. A stranger next to him asked if he knew the president. The man didn’t move his eyes from the cortege but replied slowly, every word, whispered in upper case, “No…No, I didn’t. But he knew me.” Those words, “He knew me,” says it all.

When I asked Bob Zemeckis, the famed movie director of such films as “Back to the Future,” “Cast Away,” and “Forrest Gump,” what his favorite film was, he said without any trace of hesitation, “Forrest Gump.”

When I asked him why, he said, too simply for me to understand, “Well, I guess it’s because we were all making the same movie.” I asked, “What? I don’t understand what you mean.” He shot me a look of “it’s obvious.” Not to me I grimaced back. “Well, what I mean,” he explained, “is that we were all making the same movie, everybody, the actors, the producers, the sound people, the gaffers, the grips, the best boys, the caterers, the make up people, the costumers…” I think he mentioned at least 10 or 15 more. I had never heard that point made so brilliantly. Yes, it does take a village, more than that, a village that is aligned, that is collaborating to create a great movie, a great product, a great nation.

Time permits only one more portrait, that of Howard Schultz, the iconic Starbucks founder, who seemed to come out of nowhere in the late ’90s to create arguably the most famous franchise in the world.

I could tell countless stories about Howard Schultz but the punch line in one word, respect. Aretha Franklin knows how to sing it. Schultz knows how to brand it, from providing health benefits and dignity to even part-time workers. He also has respect for his customers because his sales pitch, his mantra is simple, “We sell coffee but our main product is the experience we provide, the experience of a third place, away from work, away from home.” That’s respect which my dictionary defines as “to tend to, to pay attention, to look at, to listen.”

Well, that’s only a beginning but it’s a substantial trio of characteristics that I think defines a damned good boss: Knowing your people. Creating a team, a necessity to make a great movie, a great anything.

Finally, that powerful word we still sway to: RE-SPECT.

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