A few years ago, I was having lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen since he landed his new position two years earlier. While we munched on our salads, I asked him how he liked his job. Half expecting him to share some level of unhappiness, I was pleasantly surprised when he told me how much he loved his new gig. I have found, after years in the human resources profession, that rare is the time when someone has told me how much they love their job.  It turns out the reason for his satisfaction was his immediate manager, whom my friend described as the ‘best boss’ of his 20-year career.  Intrigued, I asked him to tell me more. His response:

“I am given autonomy and freedom to do my job. I have decision-making authority for virtually all matters that affect me and my team. My boss keeps me informed on organizational happenings that could impact me. He sets high expectations. He gives me timely, constructive feedback when necessary and recognition when warranted. He always ‘has my back’ in a company that is very political, especially to a newcomer like myself. And, maybe most importantly, it is clear that he cares about me as a person, not just as an employee.”

Wow, who wouldn’t want to work for someone like that? It made me wonder if others had a best boss in their lives.

The Best Boss Study

Fueled by this curiosity, I and my Lead Well LLC partners, Dr. Toni Pristo and Dr. John Furcon, decided to study the Best Boss experience. We invited individuals to answer seven open ended questions intended to tell us how their Best Boss had impacted their performance, career and life. While many of our nearly 60 participants worked in a corporate setting, we also received feedback from people with public sector, healthcare, education and small business backgrounds. Many people so enjoyed recounting their Best Boss experience they forwarded the survey to their friends. More than a few people were inspired to reach out personally to say thanks to their own best boss.  Cleary we were on to something. (If you want take the survey yourself, click here.)

Once the survey concluded we analyzed each response. Our first discovery was a set of ‘Best Boss characteristics’ which served as the catalyst for a strong relationship between the individual and their manager. This relationship could be one dimensional or multi-dimensional (e.g. collegial, personal, mentoring, etc.) and was always built on a solid foundation  of personal characteristics such as humility,  integrity, humor, trust, thoughtfulness, fairness, intelligence and optimism.  While these characteristics would vary from boss to boss, the one consistent trait among all Best Bosses was, perhaps not surprisingly, respect.

Our analysis then identified five behavioral traits that that were repeatedly highlighted by our survey respondents. These traits are described below:

  1. Leads From a Higher Purpose – The Best Boss has a purpose beyond self-interest / self-profit that is put into action on behalf of the individual.
  2. Activates Potential – The Best Boss observes, values and takes steps to activate the present capability and future potential of the individual.
  3. Grants Autonomy – The Best Boss imparts knowledge, business acumen, big picture thinking and establishes an autonomous space for the individual to perform.
  4. Continual and Pervasive Feedback – The Best Boss seamlessly uses frequent and diverse feedback to constructively shape, reinforce and / or modify behavior.
  5. Encourages Risk Taking to Drive Learning – The Best Boss fuels reasonable risk taking to assure learning while realizing that mistakes are a natural part of the growth process.

The Best Boss System

While these themes were interesting, they were hardly groundbreaking findings in unlocking the secrets of great people leadership.   But when we looked deeper at our data we saw a couple of things that really caught our attention. First, it was evident that our five behavioral traits did not operate independently but were actually part of an integrated ‘Best Boss System’ that worked holistically together to motivate others.  It was clear that Best Bosses make it their mission in life to help individuals realize their potential.  But they also understood that this leadership approach was just the starting point. They instinctively knew that potential cannot be fully activated without simultaneously developing skills, setting clear expectations, providing constructive feedback, creating an autonomous space to operate, and encouraging risk taking without the fear of retribution.  This system created a powerful organizational impact by building employee engagement, retaining top talent and driving superior performance.

Powerful Stories

The other compelling part of our Best Boss study was quite simply the personal tales that people shared with us. These were powerful and emotional stories that transcended well beyond work. It was obvious that our Best Bosses leave an indelibly positive impact on us, not only as employees but as people.  Take a look at some of these quotes from our survey respondents and I am sure you will feel the same energy we did as we read their stories:

  • “(My Best Boss) made me believe that you could lead with your heart as well as your wisdom, that competence and firmness need not be at odds with compassion and integrity.”
  • “He would do all sorts of things to get me out of my comfort zone – push me, and even sometimes provoke me. He saw potential but also saw that I was holding something back and wouldn’t accept that I was giving everything I had to give.”
  • “I felt like I could take risks and push myself. I was never afraid of making mistakes and could work outside the box and try new things.”
  • “When faced with a difficult decision, her first question was always ‘What’s the right thing to do?’”
  • The greatest boss EVER … he cared about everyone in his department. He had extreme competence and was trusted by most important people above him. But really it all came down to giving you a clear direction and, within that, complete autonomy. He didn’t allow ‘run-arounds’ by his direct reports, stuck up for you with your peers and other departments and if he didn’t agree with you, he dealt with you in private and let you sort things out. He had an open door and always made you feel welcome when you came in to talk with a hi”
  • “Thank you!! You made me a better person… not just a better leader. You made me learn how much more people can do when they feel supported and appreciated. Far more importantly, you made me a better wife, mother, daughter, and friend by sharing your contagious love of life. You taught me to take chances, celebrate success, and appreciate that if I don’t make mistakes, I’m not challenging myself enough!”


Logically this is where I should conclude by sharing insights on Best Boss traits and how they impact leadership and organizational performance. After all, that’s what you expect from in an article about leadership, isn’t it?  And from enhancing individual performance, engagement and retention, there are plenty of things that Best Bosses do to drive organizational success.  93% of our respondents said that their individual performance excelled.  82% made statements that indicated a high level of engagement. 77% said that their Best Boss had a positive impact on both their development and career. If you are a leader yourself or have accountability for driving leadership behavior in your company, these numbers should at least give you pause for consideration. At most, they should  inspire you  to bring these traits more into your personal leadership style and your organization’s leadership capability.

But just focusing on the organization impact would leave out perhaps the most compelling element of the Best Boss experience, which is the spark that is created between two people and how lives change as a result. To reinforce this point I want to share a remarkable story from Courtney, a friend and former colleague, who was one of the first people I had asked to complete the Best Boss survey. Courtney decided to write about Bob, a manager from early in her career. Here is how she described him:

“Bob was a mentor, friend and one of my greatest advocates and supporters. He played a tremendous role in instilling many values that I bring to work each day. I am incredibly grateful, appreciative and privileged to have known and worked with Bob. I have taken everything he taught me into all of my future roles in work and life as a colleague, friend, wife and mother”.

Shortly after Courtney completed the survey she found out that Bob was terminally ill. Courtney printed her survey responses with the hope of sharing them at the hospital with Bob and his wife. But Bob was too sick to see Courtney, so she gave them to Bob’s wife, and attached the following letter:

I was recently asked to be interviewed regarding my favorite boss, who is resoundingly YOU.   I felt like my responses truly captured all that you mean to me and the multitude of ways you have touched and enriched my life over the years, so I’ve enclosed the transcript for you to see.  It could never do justice to expressing the role you’ve played in my life and the special place you hold in my heart, but it’s a start. 

I hope you find comfort and peace knowing how many people love you and the level of positive impact you’ve had on everyone you’ve touched in this world.

Love always,


A short time later, Bob passed away. But not before Bob’s wife was able to read Courtney’s words to her dying husband. A few days later, Bob’s minister shared Courtney’s heartfelt story at the funeral.  It was an amazing moment that reminded everyone in attendance about the incredible impact one person could have on another.

A Final Thought

Whether you are a senior leader in any type of organization or simply someone’s supervisor, you are in a position to bring the power Best Boss traits to your organization. And, if you have been paying attention, you know that this is much more than an organizational topic. It’s personal. If you are lucky enough to have had a Best Boss relationship, it likely has had a transformational impact not only on your work but your life as well.

To conclude, let me ask you to think about the best job you have ever had.

Why did you like this job?

There could be lots of reasons. You understood the importance of your role. You were having an impact. You were learning. Your values were aligned. You were having fun. You were making a difference. You were trusted. You were respected.

You mattered.

Not just as an employee but as a person. Do you remember how you felt?

Your commitment was unquestioned. Your direction was clear. Your development was enhanced. Your performance excelled.

Your entire life was brighter.

There was probably a Best Boss at the center of it all.

Shouldn’t everyone feel this way? What would happen if they did?

That’s the extraordinary impact of a Best Boss. And we should do everything we can to make sure we have a lot more of them.

We would love to hear your Best Boss story. Visit the Best Boss Experience to share your story, watch videos, and learn more. Contact us if you’d like to talk about bringing the Best Boss Experience to life in your organization.

This article originally appeared on Duncan Ferguson’s LinkedIn.