Who’s boss now?

John Bittleston

While D Trump is sarcastically pouring Dettol into his family and friends to cure them of coronavirus we should consider the more serious question of how the disease is changing the power, definition and role of boss. One of the signs of a good boss is that s/he understands when to step aside and let people who know what they are doing take charge. My favourite example of this is Field Marshal Montgomery retiring to his caravan to sleep once a major WWII battle had started in North Africa. He’d done the planning, given the speech. Now his generals would conduct hostilities.

I think we’ve got it all wrong about the boss. S/he is there to encourage, to enable and to endure. S/he is not God, nor yet Einstein. S/he won’t get everything right and if, afterwards, they claim to do so they will be lying. S/he won’t be following a checklist of what to do, or repeating some business school mantra about leadership. Because leadership is a very personal matter. Its main function is to relate what is actually happening to what ought to be.

It is this relating the real to the desirable that shows great leadership. To some extent it is true of all aspects of life. If we were all highly creative we would progress faster than we do. But our occasional nods to the importance of creativity mean that it is taught sporadically and very much at the whim of the teacher. That is why, in the time of pandemic, those who are equipped to creatively handle each stage of it appear like poppies in a cornfield, as if from nowhere. The boss should always be there, encouraging, enabling, enaduring, but letting the experts do their job.

Normally we are not in the throes of a pandemic. Life is somewhat more predictable, less frightening, riding on a smoother ocean. The boss’s role is just the same then. Relating what is happening to what needs to happen is still the key to being a good boss. But in a more relaxed atmosphere s/he must also use time to demonstrate courage, strategy, empathy, intelligence. Not by creating artificial scenarios but by using day by day events.

So how will Covid-19 change the boss’s role?

Quite substantially, I think. The authority associated with the word ‘boss’ has slipped, in no small measure because of one President, but also because virtually all the bosses have made what now appear to be quite bad choices. Jacintha Ardern in New Zealand, may be an exception to this. If she is, I am sure she will be the first to admit that a fair part of her good decision making was luck. It always is. So, as you remember your great commercial triumphs do also remember how much luck you had. That applies to bad luck as well as good luck.

In helping people equip themselves to become boss – or to become a better boss – we rely on three basic elements, the ‘Three Ts’, Transparency, Truth, Trust. No boss can be wholly transparent. For example, the law prevents the boss from revealing certain data about the accounts at specific times to avoid insider trading. There may also be delicate discussions with unions or with potential acquisitions that cannot be revealed while they are going on.  But beyond special cases the boss should aim to be totally transparent.

There is a good deal of lying in the world. Some people have a vested interest in spreading gossip, others simply enjoy creating mischief. It’s as well to remember that any message moved more than three places from its originator is almost certain to be misrepresenting what was originally said. The weapon of choice to combat this is Truth. It only works if the boss is seen to be consistently truthful. This will upset some people, will make personal situations more open and will be especially difficult if it is changing an established culture of falsehoods and secrecy. But it has to be established.

Trust is a two-way thing. Paradoxically ‘the trusted trust’. Leaders often fail to realise that getting their reports trust is that easy. Once you trust them they will trust you. Does that mean that every single thing they tell you will be correct? Of course not. Bosses have to take a broader view than that. If you manage by the microscope you will die by the microscope. None of us can, even with the best will in the world, get everything perfect. None of us can totally trust, just as we can never be totally trusted.

The issue is about results. A broad pattern of working together by being transparent and truthful and by trusting each other is a heady mixture for a boss. Those who achieve it will produce spectacular results.

Post Covid-19 they will also survive.

- Sir John Bittleston