The Boss as a creator of meaning

I caught up on the first three episodes of The Newsroom over the weekend and it has been fertile ground for reflection (which, besides strict entertainment, is the thing I love most about good stories).  But one theme has preoccupied me more than most: Newsroom’s reflections on the modern American working relationship.

I don’t mean the romantic underpinnings of the show, which I’m entirely uninterested in.  I mean the actual relationships that grow between people working together on a project, and in particular the primary importance of having a good boss.  Whatever his personal faults, newsman Will McAvoy is meant to be the show’s lodestone, its anchor as much figuratively as literally.  The show may be just a smug opportunity for Aaron Sorkin to tell us how to get America right, but he certainly gets one thing right: we all want to work for a badass.

Everyone on the show works for a badass; they all think their immediate boss is awesome.  And that’s something I think has been missing from all the recent interest in the workplace as a creator of meaning.  People have latched onto the psych research that shows that mission, more than money, keeps people happy and satisfied at their jobs but I’m willing to bet that looking up to your boss is a surprisingly large component of that.

After six months of relaxing, I’ve been starting to look at jobs again.  Having said “maybe” to a bunch of offers, I’m trying to get good at saying “no” and narrowing them down.  And I’m finding that the primary factor in my decision is precisely my estimation of the quality of that relationship: is this a job where I get to work for someone I believe in?

I’m a Mac, not a Will.  Which is to say that while I will certainly lead a team within a larger organization, I have no desire to be the man at the top.  Consequently, I need someone at the top that I can trust and respect and encourage to fulfill both the potential of the product and their own potential.  And I don’t think I’m alone in that job desire.

Asking “what makes a good boss?” may be a bit like asking “what makes a good teacher?”, in that it may vary largely with the person you’re asking.  But before we even start thinking about what makes someone a good boss, I think we have to start asking why so few bosses actually think about their role.  That is, most bosses in the American workplace have to manage both up and down: they are simultaneously someone’s boss and someone’s employee, and it is the employee role that tends to take up the majority of their energy.  Even when they are managing those below them, it is with the purpose of impressing those above them.

So maybe that’s the call to action: be a better boss.  Or at least think about what being a boss means, and how you can serve those who you manage.  What kind of leader would you like your boss to be?  Who would you follow?

Side note: instead of saying “someone’s employee”, I almost said “someone’s bitch”.  Isn’t it odd that we don’t have a nice word for someone who reports to someone.  The thesaurus suggests: aide, assistant, attendant, deputy, flunky, gofer, helper, inferior, lackey, minion, peon, scrub, second, second fiddle, second stringer, serf, servant, slave.  With the possible exception of deputy, I don’t want to be any of those.