At a Loss With the Boss


One of the toughest adjustments new managers have to make is managing their transition from specialist or expert operator to someone who is no longer required to play to these strengths.

I’ve worked with many managers (well-seasoned ones and young bucks,) and most of them saw this transition as a real baptism of fire (…but without a Priest to guide them through.)

Becoming the Boss

Here’s what one manager told me when I was coaching him.

“When I first became a manager I was really uncomfortable with the sudden nom de plume “Boss.” In one fell swoop I went from being one of the gang to becoming the gang leader, not by common consent of the team, but through imposition as far as they were concerned. I found the hierarchy really hard to get used to. To be honest, I don’t know that I ever have.”

Sound familiar?

What’s in a Name?

As we discussed his experience and concerns, we started to realise that there was a clue hidden away in what he had told me, and it’s the use of his word “boss.”

It raised a number of questions for us:

  • What should we call our leaders?
  • Do the titles we afford them have to be so forcefully hierarchical?
  • Why do we need to create this enormous separation between the person who manages a team’s operation and the members of that team?

We both agreed that whatever we choose to call ourselves, “boss” (even if delivered tongue-in-cheek) is among the least helpful of titles. Rightly or wrongly, we associate the word “boss” with being bossy. That is its derivation. So the implication is that in order to be a boss you have to be bossy.

It’s a short-hand job description or competency profile. As such, it serves no-one very well.

Feeling the Distance

First, employees subconsciously feel the need to distance and protect themselves. Secondly the manager, consciously or otherwise, feels the imperative to live up to the tag. “Boss” is a title that forces distance when closeness and collaboration is needed to deliver results.

This is what my client had experienced when he first accepted the role, and had been struggling with it ever since.

Some people love the title of “boss” because it is a public declaration of their significance and raised status. Other managers, the more successful ones, realise that results are not achieved by wielding status, but by engagement, good management, and loyalty.

A Creepy Example

To back up this assertion, I shared with a story with my client of manager who attended one of my management training workshops. At a certain point in the proceedings, he proudly boasted that he followed people to the toilet and stood outside with a stopwatch until they came out.

He would penalise them if they went over the allotted three minutes per visit.

Suppressing my urge to tell him that this was the weirdest example of a time and motion study I’d ever encountered, I asked him to tell me a bit more about his team.

  • Were they committed?
  • Were they pro-active?
  • Were they diligent?
  • Were they productive?

His answer, not surprisingly, was “No. In fact, they’re the worst performing shift on the plant.”

Being Boss or Being Bossy

The manager above loved being the boss, and no love was lost between him and his team. But we have learned long ago that adopting a Directive, Telling style of management as our primary position yields few dividends in the long-term.

As an emergency measure, it has its place, but no-one likes a bossy-boots and we sure as hell don’t want to be managed by one.

Having this discussion with my client helped us both realise that the word “boss” is a highly-charged one. Using it has the psychological effect of driving a certain type of behaviour. Through further discussion we discovered that what’s needed is a reframing of the relationship between a manager and the people they manage: a relationship based on mutual benefit and interdependence, not hierarchy.

This reframing can be enough to reposition the way we interact with those we are privileged to manage.

Careful Language

The conclusion here is that some words such as ‘boss’ are very negatively impactful. We can weaken our positive impact by using them, even if it’s done ironically.

Using the word “boss” ironically simply reinforces our understanding of a Boss as someone who rules with a rod of iron, pulls rank, and has power over us.That’s a tough role to live up to, and not a desirable one for most of us. It certainly wasn’t what my client wanted for him and his team.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Tim Lambert
Tim Lambert
is CEO of Kay-Lambert Associates Limited

He is a professional leadership coach working with groups and individuals
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blog | Skype: timlambertkla

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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Dawn on March 13, 2013 at 1:04 am

    I always think of myself as part of our team, I am very lucky to work with an amazing group of educators. We do not always agree on everything, however, each decision we make is based on what is best for children.

  2. Al Gonzalez on March 13, 2013 at 5:41 am

    Thanks for this very good post Tim. As you say in the article,

    “Using the word “boss” ironically simply reinforces our understanding of a Boss as someone who rules with a rod of iron, pulls rank, and has power over us. That’s a tough role to live up to, and not a desirable one for most of us.”

    This is very true. Many new and seasoned managers see themselves as LEADERS. To some extent, this is true as people have no choice BUT to follow them at times. However, these bosses should not fool themselves into thinking they are the kind of leaders people WANT to follow.

    Being a leaeder that others want to follow, takes work, dedication and a lot of self-reflection. These are the things that don’t come with a title and are too often ridiculed by Bossy bosses who can’t lead appropriately.

  3. Bill | LeadershipHeartCoaching on March 13, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Titles have never made a difference to me. In fact, when I was promoted from Director to Vice President years back, it took me six months before I got around to getting new business cards. It just was not important.

    One comment concerning the title “boss” that makes me smile. Last year, I added to my staff a gentleman in his late 50s who was retired Navy. Since day one, he refers to me as “boss” but in a very pleasant, comfortable way. I will call him and he answers, “Hi Boss!” I think it may be his upbringing. I’m sure he would stop if I asked him, but he’s comfortable with this and as I say titles are not important. What is important is having my staff feel comfortable to come to me when they need to. Thankfully, that happens.

  4. kwalitisme on March 14, 2013 at 7:55 am

    Reblogged this on kwalitisme.

  5. Jay Steven Levin on March 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Nice post Tim. Agree w/ Bill above. People at work or out of work come to those they they feel, make them feel – that they matter. Simple.

  6. Tim Lambert on March 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    I really appreciate all of your comments. Glad that the article has stimulated some interest and debate.

  7. Karen on March 14, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    I enjoyed reading this. Unfortunately, I work in a church setting and the difficulty is the pastor/associate are infatuated with each other, both are micro managers and even worse, she does not have any experience, nor degree and he has very little people skills because of cultural differences. We have lost half our staff and it doesn’t faze them. We have referred to HR, but there really isn’t anything that they can do. ?????

    • Nancy Franqui-Davila on April 12, 2013 at 3:06 am

      Try Labor Relations

  8. Wayne Kehl on March 15, 2013 at 1:11 am

    Congrats on hitting over 2000 hits in the first day of a posting! That has to be an L2L record. Great networking!

    By the way, “boss” is a word like “secretary”, “assistant”, “vice president”, “supervisor”, “manager”, “foreman”, or “president”. All can evoke an emotion in some people. Great leadership and great “followership” are what matter regardless of the words used to identify the positions.

    All the best!

  9. Martha Ware on March 18, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Interesting article. Tim. I believe the choice of words will directly impact the perception that employees have of their leader. In my opinion, the “Boss” word triggers the perception of authority, micro management, harsh hierarchy and punishment. We are leading businesses in a world where information is widely and easily available, shared with the “click of a mouse” and opinions are freely given in any subject. It is a natural world of engagement. A good leader will take advantage of it and will motivate team collaboration, development and interaction. Although I believe that the actions of the leader are more important than the title he carries, the perception of the word “boss” might shy away the openness to team participation, team work and team results.