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How to Unboss Like a Boss: Part 1

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

This post comes in two parts. As I started to dig in, it turns out there is more to being a boss unboss than I realized. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for Part II.

While the name may be trendy, the unboss philosophy of management is not. It is based on the well-researched and time-tested principles of modern management theory penned by Peter Drucker decades ago and encoded previously as Level 5 “servant leadership” by Jim Collins in his classic, Good to Great.

The term “unboss” came into modern parlance with the 2012 publication of the book by the same name, made all the more popular by Vas Narasimhan at Novartis, a Top 3 Pharma company with more than 120,000 associates around the world. At its core, “unboss” is an answer to the antiquated management principles of Taylorism born in the industrial age and upon which much early management theory was based (until Drucker, aka the father of modern management). More recently, we see the work of Simon Sinek and others which build on modern management principles, expanding the tool chest for today’s leaders.

While the catchy title of “unboss” seems to resonate with Zoomers just entering the workforce (pro tip #1millennials are now the bosses), let’s remember who is being unbossed here. Its not the “workers” (who I’ll refer to as associates), but rather the “bosses” themselves! It is a common misconception that associates are being given permission to “unboss” themselves. Pro tip #2, if you need permission, you’re still bossed.

So if the work of “unboss” is actually the boss’ job, what is it exactly? And how can you unboss like a boss? Although the bookstores (and best seller lists) are littered with titles like, “7 easy steps” to whatever your heart desires, its not like that. In my experience, the journey to unbossing is long, and involves years of introspection, coaching, and/or therapy depending on the baggage you start with at the beginning.

This is a life-long journey because its about life. About why you’re here, what you stand for, and who you are. In my experience, it takes some time to figure all that out. And maybe you never really do, but you get comfortable enough with the process that you can lead other people on the journey as well. While there is no formula for this, no "7 step plan", I do have some thoughts.

Be human. Best advice on choosing a leader I ever got was from a "wise beyond his years" leader (at the time still an individual contributor). I needed to hire his boss, and his plea was “hire someone human.” Wow. That observation—that many managers lack humanity (or lose their humanity when they gain power)—is fundamental to this conversation. History is filled with heart-breaking examples of how power can corrupt an individual’s humanity. So how can you guard against this? How do you stay human with all that power and influence of being “the boss.” Again, there are no easy answers here, no “7 step plan.” Being human is hard and confusing at times. We may never truly figure it out. The mystery of this life is part of its charm. But as humans, we have a few simple rules on this, right? Treat other people like you want to be treated. Be kind. Help each other. Know what? Read Robert Fulghum’s, “Everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten.” It's all right there.

Be self-aware. Self-awareness is the first tenet of Goleman’s mixed model of emotional intelligence and is foundational to the other traits. Self-awareness could also be called ego-awareness—taming that beast is a life-long journey for sure! As long as there is a growth mindset and an openness to feedback, I do believe everyone (except for the narcissists and the psychopaths) can become more self-aware.

So, in addition to seeking (and listening to) feedback, what else can you do to become more self-aware? Study yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts, your mindset, your reactions to events—especially those “over-sized” reactions. What the kids call “triggers.” A great tool for studying yourself is journaling—write to yourself, write about yourself. Write 3 pages everyday for 30 days and see what you have to say. Having trouble getting started? Check this out.

And how exactly does being self-aware make you a better leader? Let me give you an example. When I first started at Novartis as Global Program Head for the Entresto team, there was a woman there who was already doing the job. Not in title, but in fact. She was also smarter than me, better educated than me, knew Novartis better than me, and obviously knew the program and the people better than me as she'd been at this for a year before I arrived. My imposter syndrome was majorly triggered. But, I had been working on my self-awareness skills for sometime, so I recognised that I was having an "outsized reaction" to the situation. Somehow I managed not to panic. I never asked her to play small so I could play big. In fact, I did my best to do the opposite by asking her to play even bigger. And something amazing happened. As it turned out, we had very complementary strengths. We made an awesome team. Of course she was eventually promoted and ran her own team as she was clearly qualified to do. But if I hadn’t had the self-awareness to recognise and manage my own baggage in that situation, I don’t think it would have turned out as well as it did for both of us.

Be vulnerable (aka authentic). Part of being human is, well, being human. You are not infallible, you don’t always have the answer, you make mistakes. Own it. Be open with your teams about your vulnerabilities, they probably already know anyway. Talk about it, make jokes about it. Importantly, make sure you create the conditions for them to help you! If you’ve hired your team well, they should be strong where you are weak. And together you can be an indomitable, unstoppable force.

I always tell my teams this about me: I have a bias for action and I am decisive—both nice strengths to have in a leader. But with every strength there comes a weakness. So if I make a decision that you think is wrong, you really need to tell me because I may have missed something important—my attention to detail ain’t so good. I need people around me who sweat the small stuff because sometimes its the small stuff that can derail the whole deal. So speak up, tell me why I’m wrong.

And here’s the important part—as the leader, you need to create the conditions where people can speak truth to power. This happens in the moment when people see how you react when you're told you made a mistake. If you express something other than curiosity or gratitude, you will blow it. It doesn’t matter how much your ego may sting from the perceived slight, or how annoying you find the comment. If you want the team to help you, don’t react—get curious and get grateful. Your team needs to know its safe to express their opinions.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about building trust, connecting to purpose, creating clarity and coaching. Don't miss it--go to my website and scroll down to subscribe.

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