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It’s time to leave the boss complex behind

Mar 20, 2022 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Today I want to tell you the story of the boss who screwed up.

In 2007, this boss was on a roll, having founded a really successful company. The business, however, faced a pivot. The boss was a visionary who had seen that the future would not be like the past. That meant that a very successful legacy product would need to be superseded by a brand new method of delivery. How to manage the transition?

Boss-man decided to go radical and separate out the old business and give it a new name, allowing the burgeoning new service to expand unhindered by legacy matters. The catch? This idea was entirely inward-looking. Customers hated it. Those who wanted to enjoy both services were suddenly forced to pay double. They revolted. Millions of customers were lost; the company’s stock price plunged by 75 per cent. All because of one boss’s decision.

The company was Netflix; the boss was Reed Hastings.

Reed, chastened, apologized to the world. When he asked his team why they did not stop him from proceeding with an idea most of them thought would fail, he got the answer: because he’s the boss! They thought the boss was always right; that they couldn’t disagree with the boss; that if no one else demurs, why stick your neck out and risk having it chopped off…

What was interesting was what happened next. Reed immediately added a new element to the Netflix culture: if you disagree with an idea and do not express that disagreement, you are choosing to harm the company. What’s even more interesting is where you can read about this incident. In a book about Netflix (No Rules Rules), co-authored by Reed, and in his own words! He didn’t suppress his mistake, or blame it on others—as many CEOs would have. He came clean, and fixed the problem.

Netflix, as we all know, has been just fine since that glitch in strategy and leadership.

I highlight this story to point out the dangers of the “boss complex”—the mistaken belief that bosses are always right and can never be challenged, simply because they are bosses! Humans have suffered from this complex for aeons. Bosses have their way; they set the agenda; they make all the key decisions; they make or break nations and organizations. And that’s OK, apparently, because we believe bosses have that right.

Two groups are responsible for this lamentable situation: first, the leaders, who reinforce the myth that they are infallible and cannot be challenged by underlings (and visit consequences on those who do show any dissent); and the followers, who act like docile sheep awaiting instructions from above. Between them, autocratic leaders and timid followers have given us the boss complex.

The boss complex is everywhere: in governments, corporations, startups. The boss has god-like powers; everyone else is neutered. If the boss decides on some inconvenient dates, you clear your diary. If the boss makes a crazy decision, you grin your approval through gritted teeth. And when one the pliant followers manage to become leaders themselves, they, too, become chest-thumping caricatures who brook no dissent.

What’s wrong with this situation? When we depend on one person to make key decisions and define strategy, we risk that person someday ruining the entire enterprise. We may have been able to depend on top-down leadership in the days of yore when we lived in a more stable, more predictable world. In today’s continuously volatile and uncertain era, we would be utterly foolish to lay our unquestioning faith in any one human.

Writes Reed Hastings: “We don’t emulate those top-down models, because we believe we are fastest and most innovative when employees throughout the company make and own decisions. At Netflix, we strive to develop good decision-making muscles everywhere in our company—and we pride ourselves on how few decisions senior management makes.”

Very few organizations will be able to go this far, because the boss-knows-best syndrome is too strongly rooted. It takes unusual vision and will to uproot things that have stood for millennia. But I am heartened to see that the practice of leadership is slowly but surely changing in many places. I am encouraged by many leaders and teams who have understood that collective intelligence is the future—unified consciousness at decision-making level.

A boss who gets it grows and coaches others to develop ideas and make decisions, and does not hoard power. This boss gets relieved of the awful burden of sole responsibility—but still remains the leader. Only the job description is different. Instead of coming up with answers, this boss creates the conditions in which others can contribute answers. The boss becomes the gardener, not the biggest tree in the plot that takes up all the sunlight.

(Sunday Nation, 20 March 2022)

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