If I were to ask people to describe an ideal boss – we’ve had the opportunity to do this around the world – you would expect to have disparate information. People would say that an ideal boss is someone who is kind, who is approachable, who listens, and who is supportive. They feel that a boss who is honest and fair, who gives me an opportunity to learn and who is knowledgeable would be a perfect description. What we end up getting is a huge bag of words. But what becomes apparent is that there are synonyms in the bag. You can simplify the bag, reduce it to some core themes.

Care and Growth

Essentially, we can reduce the findings to two core themes:

1. Care – One of the primary concerns is care, because someone who listens and who is compassionate, cares for me. What the subordinate is really saying to the boss is: have a genuine interest in me, don’t just be in this relationship to get something out of me. Care about me.

But then there’s a harder theme.

2. Growth – If you are looking for someone who is honest, they won’t always be nice. They may sometimes say things that are upsetting. The reason why you want the honesty is not that you are masochistic – no-one enjoys being upset – but it’s the person’s honesty that helps you to understand where you are, where you can learn and where you can grow.

So, the two themes that come out of this are care and growth. The real reason why people commit to a boss or work for a boss because they really want to, is because the boss sincerely cares for them and gives them an opportunity to grow. Those two things are universal: we found them in Japan, we found them among employees in gold mines in South Africa, we found it in military organisations, wherever you go, every human being on this planet says: the boss I work for because I want to, cares for me sincerely and gives me an opportunity to grow.

Care and Growth and Legitimacy

One needs to understand why these words are so universal. To do that you have to ask yourself: What are you asking somebody if you’re asking them to describe the boss they’d work for because they really wanted to?

If you work for somebody because you really want to, because they do all those things for you, then when that person asks you to do something, you’d probably do it.

This means that you give that person the right to ask you to do something or to exercise power over you, which suggests that the criteria of care and growth are the universal criteria for legitimate power.

When you see it from that point of view, the universality makes sense. The first relationship of power you have with another person in your life is with your parents. There are two people in that relationship: there is the big one, and there’s the little one. The job of the big one to the little one is to care for and grow them.

In other words, the job of the big one to the little one in any relationship of power is care and growth. It gives the one in authority the right to be in charge.

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