The Accidental Boss: Making Peace with Power

A colleague of mine recently landed a new gig where she’s in charge of a team of ten. It’s the first time she’s held an officially managerial role, and she confessed to me, “I feel like I need to go to boss school.”

“Boss School! I like the sound of that,” I thought. I wish there had been a Boss School for me when I hired my first employee. Instead, I learned how to be a boss by trial and error.

Of course, being a boss isn’t just about having people who report to you – it’s about being the decider (as George W. Bush so eloquently put it).

It’s about stepping into the power of being the one who defines the vision and charts the course.

It’s about gaining enough confidence in your own leadership to encourage leadership and autonomy among those who work with (and for) you.

It’s about making tough calls when they’re needed. (Among my proudest achievements as a boss is that I learned – eventually – how to fire people rather well, with compassion, respect, directness and clarity. And occasionally chocolate.)

How do you become the boss you want to be? Like many things, you may start out just trying like hell not to be the boss you most hated. That works for a little while. And you can take leadership courses, and read books, and all that good stuff. But the bottom line is this: You need to make peace with power.

We’ve all got power issues. Some of us rebel against authority. Others prefer to wait for someone to grant us power. Still others came of age in communities that attempted to equalize and distribute power among many, with varying success. And most of us have been at the receiving end of abuses of power, be it power of privilege, positional power, or another form of power. Whatever our baggage, lots of us are quite simply uncomfortable asserting power “over” others – I’ll come back to those quotation marks in a sec – because it feels authoritarian, undemocratic, and smacks of old-school hierarchy we don’t like to identify with.

Well, here’s the thing: When you’re in charge of a team, and you have the authority to hire and fire people – and the responsibility to keep the team functioning at high capacity, and meet payroll – you do have power, and you’re not doing anybody any favours by pretending you don’t.

I’ve seen what happens when bosses try to act like peers, and it ain’t pretty.

I once worked for someone whose signature move was to assemble all the staff into a meeting to ask for our input, and then disregard all of it and move forward with his own agenda regardless. We didn’t care that he had his own agenda – it just sucked to have the illusion that we were being included in the decision-making, and to have our time and energy colossally wasted.

Then there was the workplace where we all had a blast, and loved our work, but we knew the clock was ticking because we were losing money hand over fist – and the boss insisted on acting like everything was fine.

And I think we’ve all worked in teams where an incompetent staff member was allowed to stay on because the boss simply didn’t want to be the “bad guy.”

The fact is, we want – and need – someone to take responsibility, to step up to the plate and be the decider. If you’re the boss, then guess what? That person is you.

You’re the one who needs to make the tough calls on the budget front; who needs to ensure that you’ve got the best possible people on the bus; and who gets to design what success looks like for your team.

Acknowledge that power, center yourself in it, find your own way to exercise it appropriately, and things will get a whole lot more comfortable.

Now, let’s come back to those quotation marks I put around “power ‘over.’” While I encourage you to make your peace with the fact that if you have positional power (i.e. you have people who report to you), you really do have power over people – it doesn’t need to be power-over in the oppressive sense. There’s a difference between acknowledging genuine power differentials, and lording them over people. But I will say that while I have been fortunate to meet some amazing servant leaders, I have met many more people who called themselves that out of a reluctance to acknowledge the real power they held – and their teams suffer from what Jo Freeman called “the tyranny of structurelessness.” Don’t let servant leadership be the mask you put on your own unwillingness to acknowledge the power you hold.

It takes courage to step into your power – to suppress your instinct to ask for input if you don’t intend to act on it, to prioritize the budget over keeping the peace, to fire someone. It takes courage, but it is also an act of compassion. When you find yourself feeling reluctant to exercise your power in service of your vision, ask yourself: Will this ultimately serve the mission I’ve committed myself to? Will my team be better off if I delay this decision, put the blinders on, pretend that everyone gets a vote?

Embrace your power. Use it with purpose. Your team will thank you.

7 Comments

  1. Damn you’re good.

    There’s been a lot of this going around lately, which makes me happy to read. Since I’m transitioning into a much more active “leadership” position, making peace with power is at the top of my “to accept” list.

    I don’t think I started violetminded to be “the boss”. It was more of a “I just wanna make my own rules!” As the years have gone by, I’ve had to come to the grim realization that it isn’t the case — I’ve often been at the mercy of my own “niceness” in lieu of firing clients or retiring team members.

    This, though… this has given me a lot to chew on. Thanks, lovely!

  2. Love this post. Spot on.

  3. Wow. Wish I’d had this to read years ago. Brava. Passing this one along.

  4. Love this post Lauren, it’s very interesting how power is regarded as something negative around me.

    I guess as a entrepreneur, becoming a boss (or leader, I prefer that term) needs some adjustment. It’s been a learning curve for me, lots of trial and error, the fact that my studio is a virtual one adds a layer of difficulty (thank God for Skype meetings!)

    I’m curious, what would be your top 3 qualities that you think most important to a good boss?

    • Hi Valerie – that’s an interesting question. I think self-awareness is at the top of the list: knowing your strengths and weaknesses, understanding what you need support with, and so on. The better you know yourself, the better you can communicate your needs.

      Clarity of purpose – knowing what you want to accomplish, and holding fast to that vision. When your team is in the trenches dealing with the daily work, they are relying on the boss to keep his or her eye on the big picture and adjust the processes as necessary.

      I’d probably put integrity as the #3: if you have integrity, your team will trust you.

  5. This is exactly what I needed to read (and would be a nice additional resource in the Art of Leadership course materials) Thanks, Lauren!

  6. Excellent article, thanks so much Lauren – perfect timing!

    This one sentence REALLY resonated with me : “Don’t let servant leadership be the mask you put on your own unwillingness to acknowledge the power you hold” …

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