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What makes a good boss?


My first piece of advice to educational bloggers is always, 'Praise locally; complain globally." So I am going to need to be a little careful with this post. It's about my boss, Ed.

After 35 years in education, the last 12 as superintendent of our district, Ed is retiring. By any measure, Ed is the best supervisor I've ever had. I can say this now, and say it publicly, since it makes no sense to suck up to somebody who is leaving and won't be able to help your causes much. But it's true and his announcement has had me reflecting about what qualities Ed displayed that made him a good boss. And wonder if I learned something from him.

!. Interpersonal skills trump professional skills. Ed was never a classroom teacher or principal. He came up through the district's ranks via the business office. He did get a license in educational administration late in his career, but as far as I know, Ed never taught a lesson to third graders or supervised a faculty. But he could  powerfully empathize with teachers and administrators (and custodians and secretaries and bus drivers and possibly tech directors). This is why the appointment of a "non-educator" to educational leadership positions and alternate routes to becoming a teacher are not as troubling to me as to some, I suppose.

2. Give others a job and let them do it. Whether deserved or not, Ed put his faith in his people, respected their expertise, and let them do their jobs without interference. Would this be called macro-management? In turn, I never felt that I needed to be as responsible to anyone as I needed to be responsible to Ed. Is that reciprocal phenomena universal?

3.Be open and collaborative, but step in when needed. I suppose like many organizations, our district runs by committee. And given the theories of "collective intelligence," this may be the reason why most of the decisions made are pretty good ones. (Should the poor decisions be blamed on "collective stupidity?") Ed regularly attended the committees on which I serve or chair, but never dominated. But the interesting thing is that Ed would give groups just so much time to come to consensus, and then have the cojones courage to unilaterally make a decision when a collaborative one could not be made.

4. Be visible. Ed was really good at convincing our community (of which less than 20% of households have kids in school) to tax themselves for the betterment of education. His track record for passing referendums is outstanding. But it didn't just happen - Ed took his show on the road speaking to dozens of service and community groups in an honest, compelling way. He is a familiar figure at our district's sporting events, holiday program and fund raisers. (He is a good Kiwanian as well.) "80 percent of success is just showing up," Woody Allen once said. Ed may be proof of that. Oh, one reason he gave for retirement is that he just can't handle ten hour days any more.

5. Keep a sense of perspective. If I have one frustration with Ed and our district, it's that we are not more innovative with technology. I get no traction on one-to-one initiatives; small support for integrated tech skills in staff development; faint support for "21st century skills" for kids. Most of the tech budget goes to maintain. Ed's accountant mind mostly appreciates, I believe, the data crunching side of technology, not the creative, empowering side of it. (His PowerPoint slides are black and white and all bullet points and graphs.)  In many ways our district could be the poster child for allowing "the good to stand in the way of great" as Collins describes the condition. When we ask for referendums and new buildings, we tend to go for the Chevy, not the Lincoln. But interestingly enough, the district has won awards for having a great school board, for its fiscal practices, for its mentoring program and other, perhaps less flamboyant, efforts. I suspect we are about as good as our Minnesota modesty will allow us to be. Thanks to Ed's perspective, this is a school district one can be proud to serve in.

6. Finally, be a decent human being. If I had only a single word to describe Ed, it would be "decent." I have never seen him lose his temper, put down another person, or treat anyone disrespectfully. His sense of humor is never far from the surface. He rarely accepts credit, but credits others for the district's wins. He is honestly humble and self-deprecating. One of the highest accolades bestowed on a Minnesotan is to say "he's a good guy." Ed's a good guy.

I wrote that Ed was never a classroom teacher in his career. But I do believe he was a teacher, at least to me - teaching by example. I don't have Ed's work ethic, his patience, his humility, or his empathic strengths, but I do try to exhibit his good qualities when I can.

The old adage is that we teach the way we have been taught. Perhaps we should add to that, we lead the way we have been lead.

So readers, what are the qualities you most admire in your boss? I am sure he/she must have some!


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Reader Comments (7)

Leaders don't create followers; they create more leaders. ~ Tom Peters

I appreciate the fact that my new boss gives me space to make my own key decisions. He's encouraging others to become dynamic leaders and build teams of motivated individuals. That's empowering.

December 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaul C

I have a great principal! I consider her great because although she may not know all of the ins and outs of the library program, she knows that I do and therefore values my opinion. She allows me to make decisions and direct the library program as I deem best. As you stated much more eloquently in point two, I feel a great responsibilty to her to do the very best job I am capable of doing because she trusts me to do just that.

December 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCMartin21

Nothing makes a job great, more than having a good boss. As I read over this post, it made me think about myself. I am going to have to consider how I rate in the classroom based on your 6 keys.

December 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJim McGuire

Hi Paul,

You have a boss? Why was I under the impression you were retired?


Hi Cheryl,

I am guessing we would have a lot more “great” principals out there if we all recognized our responsibility for teaching them about good library programs. I suspect you’ve done a good job of that. They won’t hear about library programs in principal school, I know that!

All the best and thanks for the comment,


Hi Jim,

I’d not thought of it that way before, but good teachers and good bosses do share many characteristics. Thanks for taking my thinking in another directions.

All the very best,


December 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

My boss is the Superintendent of Northborough and Southborough Schools, Dr. Charles Gobron. I appreciate several things about Charles. He has detailed and current knowledge about teaching, pedagogy, research, and curriculum. I have worked for those who did not, and the difference is amazing. More importantly, he has a high EQ, exhibiting empathy and caring every day in many, many ways. This is a huge quality. Thanks for the post and for making me think about my boss, and about whether I am actively working toward improvement the 6 dimensions you mention.

January 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJean Tower

Hi Jean,

Sounds like you have a winner!

Understanding teaching (or having the faith to leave certain decisions to those who do understand it) is critical, but I do the think the EQ factor is even greater.

Thanks for your comment.

All the best,


January 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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