Another chapter title captures the overall aspiration Sutton advocates: “Strive to Be Wise.” His is a street-smart, been-around-the-block-but-still-a-happy-warrior brand of wisdom, rooted in a boss’s understanding of himself or herself coupled with an appreciation that bosses have to take action and make decisions, including doing lots of what Sutton labels “dirty work.” As a boss “it is your job to issue reprimands, fire people, deny budget requests, transfer employees to jobs they don’t want, and implement mergers, layoffs, and shutdowns.” Wise bosses understand that although they may not be able to avoid such unpleasantness, how they go about the dirty work makes an enormous difference. Empathy and compassion are good places to start, says Sutton. Layer on constant communication with the affected, including feedback from them you really listen to, however painful it is. Finally, you’ll probably need to cultivate a measure of emotional detachment, beginning with forgiveness for the people who lash out at you. And maybe reserving some forgiveness for yourself.
Indeed, Good Boss, Bad Boss is in its entirety a page-by-page guide to better bossly self-awareness. The variety of sources cited can be dizzying. On one page you may get a summary of two academic studies, a quote from Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda, a recollection of Sutton’s parents, and three examples of bad bosses sent in to Sutton’s website. (At times, the book seems almost crowdsourced and puts one in mind of Charlene Li on the power of social technology to expose behavior.) What gives all this consistency and makes for an enjoyable read is Sutton’s voice throughout — at times yammering, on rare occasions bordering on the bumptious, but in general so “can you believe this?” ready to laugh at the author’s own pratfalls, and so eager to help, that the net effect is sneakily endearing. Rather a comfort in a low, mean year.
- Walter Kiechel III has served as the managing editor of Fortune and the editorial director of Harvard Business Publishing. He is the author of The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World (Harvard Business Press, 2010).