Guest Column

The Obnoxious Boss


Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, has discovered that leaders have a big problem on their hands.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Sutton stated, “People who gain authority over others tend to become more self-centered and less mindful of what others need, do and say.”

He cites an experiment where groups of three graduate students were given a project where one of the three was named the supervisor. Thirty minutes after the start of their work, a plate of five cookies was delivered to the room. The researchers figured no one would eat the fifth cookie, a clear breach of etiquette, but wondered what would become of the fourth cookie. Well, you guessed it: The students in the position of power tended to take that fourth cookie and, to top it off, ate like pigs, chewing with their mouths open and spraying crumbs everywhere.

A Behavioral Check
Those of us who have been trusted with leadership positions in education should take stock of our habits to make sure we are not slipping down that road to totalitarian brutishness, even slightly.

Here are a few tips that will help us avoid the fate of the Obnoxious Boss.

•  Seek feedback and take action. Look for creative ways to get input. Do so formally and informally. Be careful of asking too many times through the same channels, and don’t let the sycophants rise to the surface. You don’t need to take every criticism at face value, but take the time to reflect on the complaints to determine whether there might be some reality to their concern.

•  Periodically take on the roles of your subordinates. It’s a great idea to ride the school bus one day, serve food in the cafeteria, help a small group next to the instructional assistant and answer phones at the front desk. You will see the impact of some of your decisions in a new light.

•  Listen to others before pronouncing your thoughts. Listening shows such a high level of respect. I once worked with a boss who seemed to start every sentence with “No, but ...” It was discouraging.

•  Be prepared to apologize when you recognize your own churlish behavior. You will make mistakes of all kinds. Be quick to take all the blame you deserve. If you failed publicly, apologize publicly. If you failed privately, apologize privately. Having done both of these on several occasions I can tell you that (1) it isn’t easy, and (2) you will gain more respect in the aftermath if done genuinely.

•  Develop accountable relationships inside and outside the organization. Find some colleagues who can serve as sounding boards for your ideas and processes. My wife is one of my favorite sources. She questions me freely and, although I rarely like to admit that she’s correct, she usually hits it right on the head.

•  Serve your staff by giving them the tools they need to succeed. Your words and actions will be scrutinized. Don’t be shy about performing menial tasks that will ease the load of your staff. You will build energy and commitment to the cause when you are a model of servant leadership and support.

•  Frequently recognize the contributions of others. You are not accomplishing anything of value on your own. Find out how each individual wants to be recognized and highlight contributions worthy of recognition. Some prefer a note in private, others prefer recognition of the group and not the individual. Some like tokens of appreciation, while others enjoy a note of thanks. Some would love it if you gave them time or attention. It’s also a great idea to praise others behind their backs. Be creative and genuine in your praise.

Power Trappings
In our school district negotiations recently, the representative from one of the bargaining groups told a story of how he was dancing with his wife one night when he noticed that the dance floor was crowded and he kept bumping into this one guy. He got a little frustrated and told the guy to go dance on the other side of the floor.

It so happens he is a man of rather substantial size with a booming voice. When he offered the “suggestion,” he looked around and the entire dance floor had cleared out to give him some room.

He related this story to make the point that, when “the district” makes suggestions, employees possibly will carry those remarks beyond their intended impact because of the position of power district leaders hold. I think it’s a beautiful illustration of one of the trappings of power. Our actions and words will be scrutinized, and we need to carefully send messages that we are there to serve the needs of our staffs in their quest to deliver quality education to every student.

So don’t be a pig, and be sure to say “please” when you go for that second cookie.

Daniel Winters is principal of Salt Creek -Elementary School in Chula Vista, Calif. E-mail: