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Best Boss vs. Superboss: How the Best of the Best Lead

by Carolyn Kalafut on

What is it that makes a leader extraordinary? What do amazing bosses do and how can other leaders do it too? Sydney Finkelstein attempts to answer these questions in a compelling HBR article, where he discusses the secrets of the “Superboss” and provides advice on how to hone your own Superboss powers. As this article circulated around Vantage’s office, we couldn’t help but draw parallels between Finkelstein’s “Superboss” research and the “Best Boss” research of our own Duncan Ferguson, which looks at best boss traits. The overlaps and similarities between the two distinct pieces of research, despite the differences in methodology, are intriguing, and speak to some common truths about standout bosses.

What is a “Superboss” versus a “Best Boss”?

Both the Best Boss and the Superboss are superior, world-class leaders; in many ways they are different words for the same type of leader. Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish the two is by discussing how the research was conducted. To understand the “Superboss”, Finkelstein identified leaders that have gone beyond simply building the organization. He looked for leaders that are known for hiring and cultivating talent, and ultimately developing leaders that influence future generations (Think: Lorne Michaels, Mark Kay Ash, Ralph Lauren, Jon Stewart, etc.). After identifying these leaders, their subordinates were asked to describe their leadership and what makes them so effective.

On the other hand, in the “Best Boss” research, Ferguson expolored the same topic (what makes great leaders great) by asking professionals from a variety of backgrounds to describe the best boss they have ever worked for, without identifying any criteria for being a standout boss prior to collecting answers. In the final analysis, both methods revealed habits that not only make a boss memorable and important to their employees (as Ferguson’s research focused on), but also elevate a boss to another level (as discussed by Finkelstein).

Looking at overlaps between Ferguson’s and Finkelstein’s work, here is what we know about the Best/Superboss:

1. They lead with a big-picture focus

The Best Boss has a clear and high level comprehension of what the organization is trying to achieve.  However, what sets Best Bosses apart is that they lead from a higher purpose, beyond, self-profit or self-interest, understanding that the organization will achieve its collective goals by helping individuals reach their potential.

Likewise, the Superboss is described as placing more focus on development than retention. The Superboss focuses on the quality of talent on a team far more than team stability; understanding that highly talented, quality team members will come and go (that is the natural career progression). Moreover, they do not hold their team back and encourage continued growth, even if that means team members leaving the organization for other opportunities.

2. They identify and cultivate talent

The most mentioned trait of the Best Boss was ‘activating potential’. In other words, Best Bosses made it their leadership mission to help others discover and develop their talents.

Superbosses also leverage the unique talents of their team. They identify distinctive ways to best utilize team talents, even if this means adjusting processes or changing a team’s focus. Additionally, they consider tailoring jobs to new hires and customizing career paths/responsibilities for those who prove they are capable of expedited learning and growth.

3. They focus on developing others

The Best Boss understands that for people to grow and develop, they need to understand the business, have clear performance expectations, and receive pervasive feedback while operating in an autonomous space.

Similarly, Superbosses take an involved leadership approach. The Superboss approach to counseling is a long-term commitment.  In fact, many protégés report keeping in contact with their Superboss long after their reporting relationship has ended.

4. They allow learning through mistake

The Best Boss encourages risk taking, understanding mistakes are a natural part of the learning process and a key contributor to individual growth.

The Superboss allows individuals room to make decisions on their own, while still remaining involved in the details. This is accomplished by setting high expectations through empowerment (i.e., empowering and inspiring the team to reach the high goals set). They create a master-apprentice relationship by offering hands-on experience, while monitoring progress.

The takeaway

Although it is enticing to suggest different fields, organizations, and teams need completely different or unique leadership to thrive, there do seem to be a set of habits that, however you look at it, are the habits of a great leader. From our Vantage point, Best Bosses and Superbosses can be found in many different places—the key is to know who they are and the vital role they play in organizational success!

Have a great Best Boss story? Tell us about it in the comments!

Want to talk more about instilling Best Boss traits in your organization? Send us a note and we’ll be in touch.

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