Many were well educated, some were very clever, a few were brilliant. In my line of work, several were well travelled, a number of them tri-lingual, the rare ones genuinely cultivated. One was a golf champion; another was a blue-ribbon chef; a third, a female boss, had written two admirably original books.
In retrospect, it seems intriguing that the boss who left the most indelible impression was also, in a way, the most pedestrian. He looked presentable, acted fairly and worked with reasonable competence, but in no way seemed specially gifted. To be honest, it was the areas where his gifts were modest that first drew my attention.
He read slowly, painfully so, and his ability to work with figures was abysmal. In those pre-computer days he depended on others like me to produce charts and graphs, and he couldn’t even say clearly what he wanted. He would at best tell you what he wanted to achieve, and leave it to you to read his mind and create what he needed.
Nor was he any more adept with words. Expressing complex ideas in words was beyond him. So he would write very short and simple letters, rarely longer than a page. He expected underlings to come up with attachments that would deal with the complexities.
Clearly details bored him. His eyes glazed over the moment the moment I cited the third subsection of a law that had bearing on a major contract or showed relative percentages of market growth. He would gently nudge me to tell him the “essence” of the problem.
These characteristics made me look askance at his managerial acumen and even consider a possible transfer to another department. It took me a while to realize that I was quite wrong. He had one trait that was unique and spectacular, and it made up for everything else.
On one occasion I resented a decision he had taken, though he cited his reasons in a staff meeting. The next morning, as we were discussing a different subject, he suddenly stopped, pretended to be tired and suggested we take a break over a cup of tea. The fact was he had gleaned my discontent and wanted to create an opening to revisit the issue. Over tea he pried out my annoyance and quickly found a way to make amends.
He had realized that I liked independent work. So, even on an important project, he would confine himself to the barest minimum of instruction and would advise me to take his counsel only when I wanted it. Instead he would make sure that I had a generous budget and abundant secretarial help so that I could focus entirely on the work.
Once he asked me to slant an important report in a certain way and even suggested the words that should occur in the conclusion. When I wrote the report, I was surprised that he excised the precise part that he had virtually dictated to me. When I asked, he replied forthwith, “I took it out because your ideas were better than mine.”
In front of visitors or representatives of other companies, he made it a point to emphasize how talented his subordinates were and extravagantly compliment their diligence and competence. He made his people feel tall and eventually, I believe, we truly gained some altitude.
Let others sing hosannas of smart and decisive leaders. I would rather go with a boss who made me feel I could do something well and do some good.