It’s Time to Fire Our Bosses

We need to start leading ourselves

The signs of boss-exhaustion are all around us.

I’m not just talking about the obvious example of an election that will seal the fate of our ineffectual Boss-in-Chief (that is, if the virus doesn’t get there first). Earlier this year, the CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman, Bon Appétit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport, and the New York Times Opinion editor James Bennet were all ousted from their positions within the same month. Meanwhile, journalists declared “the end of the girlboss” — a rejection of the careerist “lean in” model of women’s empowerment put forward by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and reinforced by a number of high-profile branding efforts throughout the middle part of the last decade. When a number of young women CEOs hastily departed the companies they’d founded at the height of the girlboss era — including Sophia Amoruso, the founder of Nasty Gal, who trademarked #Girlboss in the first place — the upheaval carried outsize symbolic weight.

Finally, it seems, the jig is up: You cannot hustle your way to empowerment any more than you can bequeath empowerment by extension of your hustle. And nobody has time for a shitty boss, especially not now.

Challenging power feels great. But when you’ve internalized ambition as, essentially, the road to bosshood, it can be overwhelming to navigate goal-setting on its own terms. The trick is to find motivation outside of the managerial construct that’s so deeply embedded into the world we’ve inherited.

Though our cultural conception of ambition is toxic and loaded, the drive to do is far from pointless in and of itself. Even in 2020, a year that feels like an indefinite waiting room until some semblance of “real life” returns, the motivation to keep moving forward is an essential human need. Setting and achieving goals makes us happier and more fulfilled. And, counterintuitively or not, we derive a feeling of purpose from a job well done, even if it’s a job we hate.

We can’t rely on a total economic and political restructuring to deliver us from this bind — at least, not overnight. But it’s well within our reach to reclaim a personal sense of drive that centers on what we want to put out into the world. What we need is a framework that allows us to be critical of the way the game is structured while still finding meaning in our day-to-day work, and in our motivations to do more.

One reframing that I find helpful comes, ironically enough, from management theory: the distinction between bosses and leaders. A leader inspires others to step up their game and expand their capabilities. A boss orders people around, and those people obey only because they have to. A leader has the confidence to awaken people to their own potential. A boss maintains their sense of authority by belittling others and shooting them down.

Put another way, the boss is an arbiter of power without an end goal, determined to cut others down to size, while leaders are interested in facilitating results. A leader’s primary aim is to create value, to be of use.

Whether in the workplace or in the highest elected office of the land, the archetypal boss imbues us with a kind of existential shrug. By caring less about outcomes than their own accrual of status, power, and/or wealth, they inevitably sow dysfunction. As a result, we can feel powerless to their whims within the system they’ve rigged. What’s the point in trying? we might be tempted to ask ourselves.

It’s time to think about the impact we want to make. To pursue it, we can be our own leaders.

We all have the ability to lead. And by choosing that path for ourselves — opting to self-lead, as it were — we reject a system that frames ambition in terms of eventual winners and losers. Instead of viewing achievement through the prism of late-capitalist success, we can opt to think in terms of the value of what we put out there.

At work, that might mean thinking about how you can structure your day-to-day priorities so that you’re in a better position to deliver on bigger-picture goals, both personal and shared. In your personal life, you can ask yourself what you’d like to accomplish and what you need to accomplish, then assess any areas of overlap; chances are that they’ll tell you where your efforts can make the biggest impact.

In considering my ebbs and flows of my own ambition through the course of the year, I find myself returning to the same, steering question: How can I be useful? By asking myself how my work might be of value to others, I’m beginning to redefine the terms of its worth.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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