Be a Boss not a SSOB

New Rule: Be a BOSS not a SSOB

A good BOSS is Benevolent, Open, Sensitive, and Smart.  A bad Boss spelled backward, is a double SOB. The advice Bob Sutton (2010) offers is a good one – if you want to be a good boss, think of the bosses you have had and what they did.  DO THAT.  Think of all the bad bosses you have had and what they did.  DON’T DO THAT.

Sutton, in his book, provides some research.  A Swedish study of 3122 men, 10 years, found those with the best bosses e.g. who were considered, specified quarter goals, and got changes implemented, suffered fewer heart attacks than those with bad bosses. I, Bill, watch what happens around leaders and bosses.  If good things are happening, it is usually because the culture contributes to making good things happen.  Of course, it is not just the boss, (ok, I hate the term boss) it is what the people in the organization create together.

Every time I see another book on leadership, I think, what is the prescription they have.  Sometimes the authors do have some interesting ideas and I certainly want to learn new ways that help me be a better principal.  Again, Sutton writes, “Great bosses use confidence and other means to enhance control. There are no surefire paths to success, and anyone who tries to sell you the magic cures is a liar.” As I have said before, no one right way to do most things, add to your repertoire.

Marshall Goldsmith (2007) gives a list of negative behaviors bosses sometimes exhibit.  Here are a few of them:

  • Winning too much -they think it is all them
  • Making destructive comments – people remember the negative far longer than the positive
  • Starting the conversations with “no,” “but,” or “ however,” – my rule is when I hear “but” they do not believe anything they have already said and now will tell you what they really believe.
  • Failing to give proper recognition – bosses taking credit for what others make happen damages trust for the short and long term
  • Making Excuses – When someone always blames others or makes excuses, and it is their responsibility, who needs them? An example is, if all the problems are because of your direct reports and all the solutions lie in the hands of those above you, why are we paying you?
  • Refusing to express regret – In my opinion, the two most important things you have to be able to say with absolute authenticity is, “I’m sorry” and “I don’t know.” When I teach new administrators I tell them this. If you can’t say those two things, find another job.  Your street cred will limit your influence.
  • Killing the messenger – this is a great way to cut off all feedback and knowing problems ahead of time which will undermine your effectiveness.

There are more in Goldsmith’s book.

Let’s look at the last one more closely.  Mistakes will be made.  Mario Andretti said, “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”  Obviously, we don’t want to crash.  And, we do want to improve our leadership, our learning, and our legacy.  I think it is only a mistake if we didn’t learn anything which helps us in the future.  Try Something, if it works, do more of it.  If it doesn’t work, do something else.

Eleanor Roosevelt: “learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”  Good Advice.  Watch those around you. Quoted in Sutton’s book, Amy Edmondson’s research shows, psychological safety emerges when those in power persistently praise, reward, and promote people who have the courage to act, talk about their doubts, successes, and failures, and worked doggedly to do things better the next time.  Edmondson (2019) just published the book The Fearless Organization. It is one of the best books on organizational development I have read.  A book summary will be posted in March.

Remember the childhood story about putting a bell on the cat so the mice would know where the mouse was?  That is you as a leader.  People know where you are, where you spend your time, and, in toxic cultures, people warn others when you are around. When I come into a school as a consultant and we are walking around, I watch how people react with the leader.  If they stop their conversation when the boss approaches, ding, ding, ding.  I watch the non-verbal behavior of kids when the leader walks around. Is there interaction and respect or ignoring and moving away.  Fortunately, the last two are not the norm in most buildings. I do see more than I would like to in schools.

Here is what Sutton calls his 11 Commandments for Wise Bosses:

  1. Have Strong Opinions and Weakly Held Beliefs
  2. Do Not Treat Others As If They Are Idiots
  3. Listen Attentively To Your People; Don’t Just Pretend to Hear What They Say
  4. Asked A Lot Of Good Questions
  5. Ask Others for Help and Gratefully Accept Their Assistance
  6. Do Not Hesitate to Say, “I Don’t Know”
  7. Forgive People When They Fail, Remember the Lessons, and Teach Them to Everyone
  8. Fight As If You’re Right, and Listen As If You Are Wrong
  9. Do Not Hold Grudges after Losing an Argument. Instead, Help the Victors Implement Their Ideas with All Your Might
  10. Know Your Foibles and Flaws, And Work with People Who Corrected Compensate for Your Weaknesses
  11. Express Gratitude to Your People

I am going to mention a few other guidelines, “Forgive and Remember.”  I learned, and still have this defect, of remembering too long.  I also don’t recommend ‘forgive and forget.’ We want to retain the learning, especially when something doesn’t work out.  The first time is experience, the second time is a mistake.

I like to think about leaders and bosses as having the following three characteristics.  Care, Compassion, and Candor.  Candor can be misunderstood, so I recommend reading Kim Scott’s book called Radical Candor. A short summary already exist on ‘What We Are Reading’ at

Finally, I have visited Menlo Innovations after reading the book, Joy, Inc.(2013) which is where the ideas of Richard Sheridan were chronicled. There are extremely good models for learning in this organization.  Sheridan just published his book on leadership called Chief Joy Officer (2018). I strongly recommend leaders read this book.  Yes, education is different from a for-profit business. And, schools can learn from innovative organizations and creative, courageous leaders like Sheridan. How about helping schools become joyful places, enjoy learning, and celebrating JOY.

I will share a few of the many quotes from Chief Joy Officer that were meaningful to me.  The first one is “I think sharing the inside of our masks is the hardest part of authenticity, especially for leaders.”  Yes, it is hard and critical to show empathy and authenticity. It is more important to be real.  We can be strong and caring.

Show humility. Are you willing to go into a classroom, face 30+ moving targets, and stand there with sweaty palms not having total control?  Do you remember what it is like to be a teacher?  Sheridan quoted, “Leaders choose to teach. And teaching is an inherently humble act—focusing first and foremost on the development of others.”

Experiment with ideas.  Get feedback from kids and colleagues. “Don’t wait for permission or bureaucratic buy-in. Don’t ponder all the possibilities. Try it and see what happens.” We want to teach kids how to take responsible risks.  OK, model it. I love this quote from the book.  Rollo May famously said, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice, but conformity.” Yes, conform when necessary, e.g. accounting principles, safety issues, etc.  Learning is messy.  Have the courage to learn something by trying something and see if it works better or not.

Edwards Deming wrote about rules for organizations a long time ago. As I remember, the first rule was “Drive Out Fear.” Leaders must make school safe places. Physically safe of course. I think it is equally important to make schools emotionally safe places.  Edmondson’s book is primarily about creating psychologically safe environments. Sheridan is similar, he said,  “Fear does not make bad news go away. Fear makes bad news go into hiding.” Drive fear out of the organization for staff and students.  They will drive out fear for the school and the community.

Sheridan also reminds us that ‘Leaders are Readers.’ I remember a colleague of mine, Dr. Jennifer York-Barr said, “if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.”  Yes, time is our most important non-renewable resource.  We still need new and energizing ideas.  I am hoping the book summaries and the posting on our website will save you some time. A quote from Sheridan’s book, “Use reading as a jumping-off point to engage more deeply .with other leaders and thinkers.”

 Sutton asks this question, Are you in tune with what it feels like to work for you?” What is your answer?


Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there.  New York: Hyperion

Scott, Kim. (2017). Radical Candor. New York:  St. Martin’s Press

Sheridan, Richard. (2013).  Joy, Inc.  New York:  Penguin

Sheridan, Richard. (2018). Chief Joy Officer.  New York: Portfolio/Penguin

Sutton, R. (2010). Good boss, bad boss.  New York:  Business Plus.


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!