Joy and Pain – Good Bosses, Mentors, and Leaders
Marisa Guerin PhD – January 2, 2019
Perhaps you’ve heard that people don’t usually leave a job – more often, they leave a boss. I don’t know if that’s true by the numbers, but I do resonate with the idea, don’t you? Intuition tells us that the relationship we have with a manager has a very significant, practically daily effect on how it feels to work somewhere. Having a good boss, mentor, or leader can be terrific; and it can cause great pain, too.
This dynamic came to mind last week as I read an article about the mood at the Pentagon after the resignation of US Defense Secretary Mattis. The reporter described the attitude of the people interviewed as “depressed”, and quoted one person as saying “people are pretty bummed”. I felt sympathy. I can readily imagine the energies of a workplace in which talented people invest their faith and their confidence in the steadiness of the leader that they respect – all the more so if that leader is in fact a personal mentor to them. I take it from this article that many of the staff in the Department of Defense felt admiration and loyalty for Secretary Mattis, and that they were deeply disappointed that he was leaving. They may have felt abandoned or bereft when he made the decision to resign. Because he apparently resigned on the basis of principle, his action also would have represented an integrity challenge to those who identified closely with his stance in the administration.
While this blogpost isn’t about the politics of that incident, it is about the deeply important reality of one’s relationship with an admired leader-mentor, and as life moves forward, with one’s own mentees.
I personally have been the beneficiary of really excellent mentoring. I’m pretty sure I would not have found my career and survived in it, let alone achieved anything of value, if not for the trust, encouragement, feedback, and occasionally no-nonsense guidance of these mentors, bosses, and leaders. Thank you – to Dad, and to Jack N, Joe S, Frank S, Jean F, Rudy B, Fran W, Tom L, Edie S, Zeni F, Jim J, Mark F, Steve R, Ric R, Larry W, Larry H, Mary T.
Each of these significant people either taught me, coached me, believed in me, or revealed to me how I could grow. I can’t begin to express my gratitude. In the eye of the valued mentor, one is “seen”, one is validated, one is strengthened and encouraged. It is an extremely precious gift, all the more so if the pace of life around one is a whirl of events and people. To have the interested attention of another who has your interests at heart is gold. It's especially valuable early in one's professional life, for a couple of reasons. One is that you don't yet know what you actually are good at unless it is mirrored to you. Another is that navigating politics and complicated work is really hard unless someone is giving you advice, wisdom, tips, and methods that are practical and helpful. By all means, seek mentoring if you are learning, and offer mentoring if you are seasoned.
There is a difference, however, between the dynamic of mentoring – in which the mentee is enabled to be more and more herself, less and less dependent on the mentor – and the complex dynamics of idealization and identification that often characterize a valued boss-subordinate relationship. The psychological bond of identification and loyalty between the leader and the followers that is established in many workplaces is functional when it motivates the team to follow the leader despite very challenging circumstances.
The mutuality of this bond can create a strong dependency; like the Pentagon staffers, I had this experience. So, of course, it was inevitable that some of my important relationships with bosses “failed” me at one point or another. These moments taught me a lot about how dependent I was on given leaders, and helped me to strengthen – eventually.
I remember one such instance in my corporate career. The admired boss who recruited me to a new and experimental role on his team was (I should have seen it coming!) promoted very quickly. Boom -- He was moving on, there was a new leader appointed, and it was happening in the midst of intensely challenging work for the whole team. On the day the announcement came through, I remember that I went to lunch at a Taco Bell, all by myself, and cried my way through a burrito. I felt abandoned, for sure, and quite skeptical about the chances that the new boss would be the right leader for the place and the time and for me. I was upset, angry, sad, scared, and eventually, stoically accepting. I knew that after a session of journal writing, a good cry, or a long walk I usually rallied and got myself together enough to pick up and carry on, making the best of a reality that was not mine to change. It was ok, I survived.
Precisely because of experiences like this, I was aware of the distress I most likely caused others later in my career when I myself was promoted, and then when I eventually resigned my corporate role entirely. In each case, I left the leadership of a team I had cultivated and supported, and I knew in my bones that this would be experienced as a betrayal by some who trusted me, who had set their course to follow mine.
There are emotional and relational consequences to taking up leadership according to the best practices that research can teach us. A good leader who is trusted and who develops and cares about their subordinates is viscerally connected to those who follow them. Under circumstances of great pressure, the loss of a leader can be devastating, worse if it involves them walking away. Maybe it is tolerable to break that bond in the service of principles, values, or a larger mission that everyone believes in, such as might be the case in education, ministry, government, or similar settings. But I’m pretty sure that breaking that trust for what really turns out to be business rationality creates some kind of emotional wound to which most folks in corporations become numbed.
There’s no avoiding it; in most large company settings, people and their relatedness are instruments for efficient work, transactional pieces of the larger machine. That’s not because the people in charge are soulless – by and large they’re just like you and me. It’s because the enterprise itself subordinates the value placed on teamwork to the ultimate measure of shareholder value. The rigors of the marketplace will rule, even if there are sincere efforts to value employees, the community, the environment, customers, etc. (This is why society regulates capitalism – to put some balancing pressure in the form of requirements for how other stakeholders should be treated.)
It took me many years after I left the business environment to sort out why the emotional dimension of leadership there was so complicated, why it left me feeling so divided in my own heart. (Perhaps I will someday post to my article library the intensely personal reflection I wrote about my corporate career, entitled “Flowers in Armor”.) Suffice to say that I have learned a lot about the shadow side of the field which has defined my professional self -- organization development and leadership.
But in the meantime, what are my life-lessons from these reflections on mentors, bosses, leaders? Here are four of them....
That caring and courageous mentoring is a wonderful gift to another person; it takes time, attention, and generosity. It is worth offering to younger co-workers, relatives, or friends.
That it’s probably easier to recognize the mentors who have shaped me on my path than it is to recognize how I may have influenced the paths of others. It is worth taking the time to listen to mentees, to be explicit in naming their giftedness, to take their thoughts and dreams seriously.
That caring and courageous leadership in an organization is of tremendous value to the success of its mission; and the stronger the leader-follower bond, the greater the pain if it is broken. Yet it is worth striving for, with realism and integrity.
That joy and pain are likely to be found together, and are not to be feared. That’s the way we live, lead, and care for others in our compromised and complicated world.