What Makes a Good Boss

Thoughts on the characteristics of a good boss.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked as a ranch hand at a dude ranch just to the northwest of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The hours were ridiculously long and the pay extraordinarily paltry but the experience and memories never-ending. It was also the summer I learned what it meant to be a great boss.

The owner of the ranch was a late-30s retired Detroit cop who, along with his wife, had just bought the ranch that summer. The first few weeks we were there, all the employees were put to work, doing everything from cleaning cabins to excavating the side of a hill to make way for more cars. It was the first summer James and his wife had owned the ranch so we all had a lot of things to do to bring the ranch up to their standards.

About the 3rd week there, I found out my grandfather died and made the trip back east to attend the funeral. I missed 4 days of work. When I returned, the ranch was looking better then when I had left it. James took me aside, expressed his condolences once more, and then asked me if I wanted to have the missed days’ wages deducted from my paycheck or work back those missing days. At first, I was incredulous. My grandfather just died and you want me to work those days back?!, I thought to myself. I needed the money and couldn’t afford losing those days so I told James I would keep working. For the next month, I didn’t have one day off (28 days of 14 hour workdays was rough; being only 22 years old helped a lot).

I had let the team down. Granted, the reason for my absence wasn’t something that was ever held over me. But, when I wasn’t there, someone else had to complete what I wasn’t able to. We were a small team and my absence had real consequences. My grandfather dying didn’t change what had to be accomplished before the guests started arriving.

That was the first lesson I learned that summer: no one is above another. Your circumstances don’t give you special treatment. Both James and his wife treated all of the employees the same. We were judged by how hard we worked and how little we complained.

The second lesson I learned was that if there was a genuine concern, James always made the time to listen to us. And I mean really listen. He would sit down, light a cigarette, look out at the horses grazing close to the brook, exhale and then look right at me. “What’s on your mind?” he’d ask. And James would keep eye contact, the occasional question or clarification popping up. He’d then ask me what I was going to do about it. He had no mind for laziness or complaining just for the sake of being heard. That attitude was a cancer that could rip apart our small team and he knew that the best way to keep his band of merry twenty-somethings well, merry, was to make sure they knew they were heard, as well as having a say in how to fix whatever problem we were experiencing. James gave us validation and autonomy.

In the middle of the summer, during the busiest time of the year, we started noticing the kitchen sink emitting a horrid smell. One afternoon, after the guests had left and we were about to get our 24 hour leave, James opened up the crawl space under the kitchen cabin. The sudden fumes that escaped from underneath was nauseating. A few of us dry-heaved. There was a thick, mucous layer of slime and sludge and used grease about 2 feet high. After years of a lack of upkeep, the drain had rotted away and everything that went down the garbage disposal had ended up in that crawl space. We all knew that it had to be drained. We all knew there wasn’t a way to do so without going in.

James turned to us and said, “Go. Go to town. Go enjoy your time off. I’ll take care of this.” We were flabbergasted. He forced us to go to town. Tex, a guy I had gotten close to that summer, and I went into town for a quick, early dinner and drove back to help James out. He was happy to see us. I asked him why he had told us to go.

“I would never ask you to do something I wouldn’t do,” he said, handing me a bucket of sludge that I dumped into a larger container, handing him another one for another load.

That was the third lesson I learned from James that summer. Being a boss wasn’t about bossing people around. Being a boss was about doing everything else that no one else wanted to do. It was about protecting your employees, making sure they did their best work. And how do you get people to do their best work? By doing more than them and allowing them to mimic your behavior. By making sure your employees feel like they matter and are heard when they come to you with a concern. And, by treating every single one of them fairly, thereby implicitly stating that they all start on the same footing and their will, skill and attitude are the deciding factors for how far they can go.

When I have been a manager, I remember these 3 lessons that guide my decisions and attitude:

  1. Treat all employees fairly.
  2. Genuinely listen and fight for your employees.
  3. Work harder and never ask your employees to do something that which you won’t do yourself.

I believe people will strive to do their best if given the chance. I don’t believe people are lazy at heart. My philosophy is to give people enough rope; the good ones will do something amazing and the bad ones, well, they’ll hang themselves. And then you’ll know who to fire. I don’t believe a tight-fisted management style works, especially in the tech sphere. When a demand is made to fulfill X number of hours, work becomes a way to pass the time. Give your employees the autonomy and backing to do spectacular work; if you’ve hired the right people, you’ll be surprised at how far you will all go.