Monday, January 28, 2013

The Silent Boss

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Sometimes the best thing for a boss to say is nothing at all. Or more precisely, to clarify what is to be achieved, but to remain silent on how to achieve it.

I consider my organization to be a "small staff" association. Others with one or two staff people may be envious of our ten staff positions, but I think of ten as small because it requires everyone to wear multiple hats, and to assume positions of team leadership for different projects at different times.

Sometimes I'm the team leader, and that relatively easy for everyone because I'm the boss, and it's natural for me to be in a position of leadership. At other times another staff person is the team leader, and that's still easy as long as I'm not a member of the team. If everyone's a peer, than they can all professionally agree that one of them will have responsibility to team progress and project objectives.

But when someone else is the team leader and I'm on the team--that's when things can get complicated.

It's complicated for them because I'm the boss, and there's a natural tendency to assume that I'm going to know what the right thing is to do in every circumstance. And even if what I say isn't right, it's still the thing to do because I said it. There are a number of anecdotes I could relay about initiatives that have moved forward because there was a collective sense among staff that it was what I wanted done; when the idea, in fact, was half-baked and crazy, tossed out only because I thought we were brainstorming and I was just a member of the team.

And that's why it's complicated for me. Brainstorming and testing out conflicting ideas is part of the process of determining what the right thing to do is. But I can't fully participate in that process because everything I say is going to be given a different weight than what other people say. Even prefacing my comments with things like "Now, this is just an idea," or "I'm just thinking out loud" has limited utility. People may understand that they don't have to do the next thing that comes out of my mouth, but there is still an unwillingness among some to critically examine the idea.

That's why I find myself more and more keeping quiet during the discussion. Or, if I say anything, it is going to be focused on bringing clarity to the objective. There is real value in that. When ideas are flying around the table, it's sometimes easy to lose sight of what we're trying to accomplish.

But perhaps most importantly, keeping silent on "the how" better positions staff to take ownership over that part of the equation. And isn't that what every leader would prefer? Always having to be the one to come up with the right answer is no way to run an organization.

This post written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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