Great Boss: Sharing the Trenches

One of my less-than-stellar bosses was once described by a peer as “..standing on the shore, throwing rocks” anytime one of his subordinates headed into rough water.  I can attest that this boss rarely lifted a finger to help his subordinates, and never put himself in the way of potential trouble.

My best boss approached the situation from the exact opposite perspective.  He was in the boat with me and paddling just like I was.  And when a tough situation arose, we worked together to sort it out.

We were a team.

What most managers do

Standing aloof and allowing subordinates to sink or swim on their own may seem to some like a good approach to managing.  It does, after all, protect the boss when there is a failure by offering him a ready scapegoat to sacrifice – particularly if the company is one of those committed to the search for the guilty (and often the punishment of the innocent.)

Such an approach may work, but it’s hardly inspirational.

When a manager takes this position, subordinates quickly realize that they are on their own – with predictable results.  Employees will take few, if any, risks, will look for their own scapegoats to blame when things go wrong, and won’t hesitate to toss the boss under the bus if the opportunity arises.

It’s a cutthroat world, but one most of us face every day if we are part of Corporate America, or at least that’s the way the argument normally flows….

The boss I mentioned above was probably the most egregious abuser of sacrificing subordinates I’ve ever known.  I recall one incident where a subordinate (one of my peers) went around him making contacts higher in the corporate ladder, trying to build a case for why he should be promoted and our mutual boss should be fired!  Of course, this backfired, and it was only a few months before the boss found a pretense to fire this ambitious peer – in this case identifying the move as “a restructuring.”

This would have never happened with my best boss, our collaborative relationship made such a scheme unthinkable.

In another incident, I recall this same boss passing off blame for a particularly unfavorable distribution contract that I knew for a fact he’d personally negotiated and signed.  When the contract became an issue for me years later, there was no way he was going to own up to his role in approving it.  I suspect he didn’t want to be blamed, which always seemed to be uppermost on his mind.

I sure could have used a little insight into the context for that agreement and a better understanding of why it was written the way it was.  Because it involved a personal risk to my boss, however, there was no possible way he was getting in the trenches with me, not for any conceivable reason.

See what I mean – on the shore, tossing rocks.

My greatest boss

Every major project or critical program was a shared effort with my best boss.  While I might have done the heavy lifting, I never had the impression that he was anything other than a full, committed partner in each effort.

This benefited me in several ways, probably the greatest of which was that he never held back information or was afraid to offer his opinion.  Many of my other bosses have hesitated to offer the benefit of their experience and insights, afraid that they might get some “dirt” on them if things went the wrong way.  Not my best boss – I could count on him to be by my side and protect me if things went wrong (at least to the degree that I could be protected).

I recall the development and approval of a new strategy, one designed to neutralize one of the greatest strengths relied upon by our number one competitor.  The presentation of this strategy was technical and complex, requiring a high degree of patience to fully understand.  Unfortunately the intended audience, our CEO, was anything but patient.  Within a few slides he was on his feet challenging all of our assumptions.

Most bosses would have sat on the sidelines, silently watching as I was verbally flayed (I’ve always said that it is much easier to criticize than construct).  Not my greatest boss.  He stepped right into the fray.  First, he tried to take some of the questions I was struggling with, and when that didn’t stop things from going the wrong direction, he even got a little testy with the CEO, something I would have never done.    After a few tense minutes, the presentation was back on track.  In the end, the CEO bought the strategy (subject to a few modifications he insisted on – window dressing, in my humble opinion) and its implementation drove growth in the business for more than a decade.


Of all the characteristics my best boss showed, his willingness to collaborate on important work, rather than criticize while stepping back, was one of the most important in making our relationship work.  While the standard in business might be a boss that casts employees into the void, forcing them to succeed or fail on their own, a boss that lives with you in the trenches is worth her weight in gold.

Other posts in the Greatest Boss Series (in Chronological Order):

The Qualities that made my Best Boss “Great”

Great Boss:  Devoting Time, Building Trust

Great Boss:  Explaining Things

Great Boss:  The Big Picture

Great Boss:  A Chance to Fail

Posts in the “On the Way Out” Series (in Chronological Order):


This is the cover of PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, released in April, 2014.  This story marks the return of LEVERAGE characters Mark Carson and Cathy Chin, now going by the name of Matt and Sandy Lively and on the run from the FBI.  The pair are working for a remote British Columbia lodge specializing in Corporate adventure/retreats for senior executives.  When the Redhouse Consulting retreat goes horribly wrong, Matt finds himself pursuing kidnappers through the wilderness, while Sandy simultaneously tries to fend off an inquisitive police detective and an aggressive lodge owner.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.