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Published: July 18, 2002

 
 

How to Manage Your Boss

How you lead your leaders is just as important as the guidance they give you.

Photograph by Steve Cohen
Florida’s first baby of the 1995 New Year tipped the scales at just four pounds and had inherited her mother’s addiction to cocaine. Pictures of the unfortunate infant were on the front page of the state’s newspapers, and the local press could not leave the story alone. To the dismay of Shirley Silverman, a local public health official, neither could her boss, the mayor of the city in which the child was born. In the aftermath of the event, he proposed a new get-tough approach to the problem of maternal drug use and addicted newborns, which included arresting women who used drugs during pregnancy. Ms. Silverman was aghast because she felt that such a policy, far from solving the problem, would drive it underground, making the situation much worse. But her boss, with the press on his back, was committed to his strategy, and she knew that she could not disagree with him either openly or directly without finding herself in an untenable situation. She agonized over what she should do next.

Shirley Silverman’s problem, one of nine mini-cases from Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr.’s new book, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing, is that she has to make her boss feel powerful and effective while moving the organization in the direction it needs to go. And that direction is the opposite of where her boss wants to take it.

The John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, Professor Badaracco is only one of several scholars and journalists who have recently taken on a challenge that pervades organizational life but has hitherto received scant attention from those who study management. The challenge is managing up — developing a meaningful, task-related relationship with one’s boss. Now the subject is attracting a good deal of attention in books and newspaper columns, in executive education, and on the Web. (Also see “Diary of a Change Agent,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, Third Quarter 2002.)

Professor Badaracco describes the multiple dimensions of the Florida quandary: an intractable problem laden with emotion and bedeviled by racial issues, diverse personal and community interests with people working under a variety of different constraints, and so on. Ms. Silverman buys some time by talking with the mayor’s political advisors, highlighting in graphic detail the political risks of how the get-tough policy might play out in the press. Within days she finds herself heading a task force that has six months to grapple with the balance between law enforcement and caregiving. This gives her the opportunity to reorganize her department so that more of her people can get out into the community. After 10 months, she crafts a compromise that addresses the major issues and factions involved, and infant mortality figures stop rising. Gradually, the political heat dies down. Of course, the fundamental problem of pregnancy and drug addiction does not go away — its root causes lie deeper still — but its symptoms are now manageable, and Ms. Silverman has new confidence in her competency as a quiet leader.

In the view of Professor Badaracco, Shirley Silverman’s quiet leadership is not only the antithesis of traditional heroic leadership, but is far more pervasive and much more effective. Quiet leadership is practiced by thousands of managers who grapple with the quotidian realpolitik of organizational life with restraint, modesty, and tenacity. Chapter headings in the book summarize the author’s helpful messages to managers — “Trust Mixed Motives,” “Buy a Little Time,” “Invest Your Political Capital Wisely,” “Bend the Rules,” and “Nudge, Test, and Escalate Gradually.”

Another writer who uses mini-cases to explore the realities of the leader–subordinate relationship is Carol Hymowitz. Regular readers of her Wall Street Journal column, In the Lead, will be familiar with the many predicaments in which people in business find themselves when their strategy or solution to a problem differs radically from their boss’s. Ms. Hymowitz’s columns are drawn from the operating experiences of real executives, and she does a fine job of compressing practical wisdom into short but memorable tales that resonate with managers at all levels.

 
 
 
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