My husband, S., has a great boss. Not only does she appreciate everything he does, she seeks to build a team of people around her who are doing their best work and are all appreciated for it. She is funny and real (even more so at the social gatherings where I’ve met her; she’ll take any dare, so be careful what you wish for) and she seems committed to giving a hand up even to people who don’t work for her (like my sister, whom she helped get several interviews).
One of S.’s career possibilities is to grab on to his boss’s coattails and follow her on her ascent through their organization. Whenever he thinks of moving in a different direction, he considers how lucky he is to have met someone who treats him so well, who respects him and creates space for his unique abilities and personality to shine, who looks for ways to help him grow. Where will he ever find another such boss?
I report all this with mixed feelings. Every time I tell the story of The Wonderful Boss, I wonder why there aren’t more of them. One obvious, basic reason is that managing human beings is a different skill from the skills people are hired to perform, then rewarded for performing well by being promoted to a position where they no longer have to perform them. My father-in-law was a good airplane engineer who was promoted to management at the end of his career; he was bored out of his mind but a couple years of that gave him a nice pension bump, so for a while, he put up with the boredom. I once worked at a law firm under a 75-year-old woman who had been a secretary for so long they had to make her a boss of something; she was on the verge of retirement when her husband died, so to keep her busy and engaged in life, they put her in charge of the billing department, which as far as I could tell was staffed twice as fully as needed, since I never had enough to do. In the schools where I’ve taught, nobody likes it when a non-academic is hired as a Dean, but nobody has ever explained to my satisfaction how teaching experience prepares one for management.
One of the practices that makes me craziest is punitive scheduling in low-wage jobs. Those in charge of slotting everyone into the times they are available frequently seem to ignore the outlines of others’ availability in ways they must have bitched about when they were the underlings. I hate that. Why on earth would you ask people when they can work, then ignore it, which you hated when it happened to you?
I fear the answer to that question is: “Because now I’m in power.” I’ve seen it in the most hierarchical workplaces I’ve been in — academia and law firms — where there is an extended process for climbing the career ladder, and once one ascends to a higher rung (after a period of 3-7 years), one wipes the crap off one’s face and commences crapping on those below.
At this point, I need to make a confession: I’m uncomfortable with power, and I have been a bad boss, possibly because of that discomfort.
As a teacher, I denied my bosshood vociferously, and I still contend that the power of teachers over students is different in kind both from other kinds of power over and has taken on greater strength than it should because of the inculcation of fear in education. One is not exactly the boss of one’s students, and not exactly not their boss.
When I say I have been a bad boss, I’m thinking specifically of the last time I directed a full-length play. The short version of the story (which is hard to tell and will have to wait for another day) is that I was unable to deal with someone who let me down over and over. I had hired her to work on the show because she was my friend, her work could be brilliant, she was looking to expand her skill set, and she made me laugh. When she started to flake out, I tried talking to her about flaking back in, but I was unable to be sufficiently clear and stern with her because I didn’t want to scare her away.
By the time push came to shove (the time known in theater as “tech week,” or in some cases, “hell week”), she was so far behind that other people had to start doing her job. Under a great deal of stress and pressure, she began to make mistakes, like deleting a precious file there was no time to replace. Then she got sick. Then she stopped returning calls and texts. She never did the job she had been hired to do.
I went a little bit crazy. I had a dream in which I slammed a newborn baby’s head against a wood floor repeatedly. Mostly, though, I didn’t sleep at all. I was upset and didn’t know how to deal with it, so I tried to bottle it up. That sort of worked, except when it came hissing out in misdirected anger at the wrong people.
I’m ashamed of what I did next, which was essentially nothing. Instead of communicating directly with my friend, I asked others to carry possessions and messages back to her. I did end up writing her an email which was likely full of self-righteous fury rather than problem-solving or rapprochement. I never heard back.
Not being equipped to handle this particular problem at that particular time doesn’t mean I wouldn’t or couldn’t be a good boss someday. I am about to set off creating a new participatory, collaborative theater work, and like a divorcee, I still feel entitled to finding happiness in the kind of relationships I know I am good at. I also know I need a right-hand boy or a woman Friday to keep me honest. And a director, like a teacher, is and isn’t a boss.
To answer my opening question and force a conclusion: There are people who are better at doing what they know how to do than managing others to do what they know how to do, and they should be supported in doing what they do, not in someone else’s idea of what a “promotion” is. When one is in a position of power, it is imperative to make decisions and take weight on one’s shoulders, and it is equally imperative to treat the people who carry out your decisions with respect and caring, interest and commitment to bringing out their best selves.
Which is, after all, why I am my own boss.
Got a bad boss story? Share it in the comments.