There are only a few reasons why some people are successful and lead satisfying professional lives, and most do not.


There are only a few reasons why some people are successful and lead satisfying professional lives, and most do not. Perhaps the most neglected reason is the boss.  The thesis is simple – if you have a boss who is going places, so will you.  At least you will if you make proper use of the boss.  In this post I explore why this is true, how to find a going-places boss, and how to make correct use of the boss.


At one level, it is an observable fact – anyone who has become really successful has had at least one boss who themselves has been distinguished in whatever the field is, whether business, sport, entertainment, or academia. Not all people who work for a successful boss become successful, but nearly everyone who has become successful has worked for one or more successful bosses, and made good use of them.

Therefore it is not all – dare I break the truth to you – about you and your abilities.  Without individual talent and especially focus and determination, nothing worthwhile gets done.  But your talents can lie neglected or frustrated if you don’t make use of them intelligently – and craftily.  And most people don’t realize how vital that is, and how large a part of the craft of the career lies in the selection and exploitation of the boss.

If you stop to think about it for a moment, it becomes obvious.  Life is all about energy, mobility, and growth – going somewhere where you have not been, rising fast in your chosen domain, and using sources of leverage – people, money, ideas, and links to other people outside your immediate purview – to multiply whatever you want to multiply, whether reputation, solid achievement, new products or services, new ideas, fame, social status, money, or the ability to do good.   In short, you have to experience and create growth.  

To gain momentum is hard, but to use momentum is easy.  

The 80/20 solution – that is, the easy way that takes you furthest – is to observe momentum and latch onto it by whatever means you can.  That means, for example, only working for organizations that are small but growing really fast.  And it means working for a boss who is “growing” – gaining ground in whatever the important objective is – really fast too.  

It is far easier to rise in the slipstream of a man or woman who is going places fast than it is to create your own head of steam.  That comes later, when you are already moving fast.

Society is unfair, and modern “meritocractic” society, while seeming fairer than a rigid class system, is inherently unfair too.  Those who come from rich or successful parents or families have a huge advantage – and it does not come principally from the obvious uses of wealth, such as buying a better education.  The most crucial advantage comes from the role model and focus provided by the parent or family.  Why is it that of the three hundred and nineteen million people in the US, the presidency is often occupied or at least contested by a handful of families – with names such as Kennedy, Romney, Bush, and Clinton?  Because these people have a family business, and the business is politics.  They are born to it.  They breathe its spirit as they grow up.  They aspire to it.  They are thought viable candidates just by the fact of their family membership.  And they get distinct leg-ups from their mom and dad and siblings.  

This is not democracy or meritocracy, but it is how democracies and meritocracies work.  You can observe the same phenomenon in the arts, television, business, universities, and many other fields.  We still have a hereditary aristocracy, and we always will.  It is just that the source of advantage is no longer confined to land.  (Though that can still take you a long way – ask Donald Trump.)

Why do I mention this?  

Because you can’t select your parents or family, but you can select your boss.

And your boss can give you the same kind of edge, or an even better one, than being born to the purple.

So don’t complain that society is unfair; start exploiting the elements of unfairness that you can control.  The boss may be the most important of these.

What Kind of Boss Are You Looking for?

  • Someone who is going places but has not yet arrived.  They must be up-and-coming.  They already display evidence of rising fast.  Their influence is growing.  They already have momentum.
  • They make a habit of promoting their protégés.  They take care of the underlings who have served them well.  They believe in patronage.  Most really successful bosses have this trait, but not all.  Some are only interested in themselves.  Avoid them.
  • They take time to explain what they are doing, and why.  Again, it is human trait to want to share your wisdom and insight – if you have it (and often if you do not).  Most successful bosses are crafty as well as talented, and they are good at upward reporting.  They make their bosses happy, and select bosses who are also going places.  As well as being crafty, most successful bosses have evolved a distinctive bag of tricks – sometimes only one trick, but that is often the best – that enable them to cut through complexity and frustration like a knife through butter.  They know how to achieve with relatively little effort, money, or people.  But they do need one or a few acolytes to help make them even more successful.  To use acolytes well, you have to give them an apprenticeship.  You have to explain what you are doing, and why.
  • They like you.  Who knows why?  Maybe they see similar traits in you – real or imaginary – that they believe they have.  Maybe they admire your brain, or your looks.  They like your personality.  They like your willingness to serve.  They may even like your abilities – but don’t count on it, and happily you don’t have to.  It doesn’t matter why they like you, just that they do.
  • You like them.  Again, it is obvious – we generally like the people who like us.   If you really like your boss, it will be clear; and also if you don’t.
  • You believe you can learn from them.   If you don’t, you won’t.  This means that you must genuinely admire the boss as well as like them.  They must know something that you don’t, and want to know.

When it comes to bosses, go for the very best you can get.  Don’t settle for a good but not great boss.

How to Get the Most from the Boss

  • Spend time with them.  Most people tend to avoid the boss, but the way to learn from a great boss is by osmosis – you absorb it from the air around them, by seeing what they do and how they do it.  You can’t observe them if you’re not there.  Try to engineer “social” time with them – driving to a meeting, a business trip, or a work-related semi-social event.  Measure how much time you spend in their office, and try to increase it.
  • Work out why they are going places.  What is their secret?  What do they know or do that lesser mortals don’t.  Learn from them and especially their short-cuts – what they do effortlessly and extremely well.  It may be as simple as their being willing to make decisions or take risks, or it may be that they make the right decisions most of the time.  How do they do that?
  • Help them go new places fast.   What can you do to help the boss in his or her own career?  This may be hard to figure out, but it is one of the few hard things that is worth doing.
  • Get them to invest in helping you.  This is usually implicit in the boss-subordinate relationship, where the boss is great.
  • Disagree with them.  Not always, not often, but sometimes.  If you really think they are wrong, express your view respectfully but as persuasively as you can.  Great bosses respect that, and it may lead you to a higher synthesis – maybe the boss is partly right, and you too have a piece of the puzzle, so you actually help the boss.  Even if you are completely wrong, and the boss explains why, you will have learned something.  But only do it on important matters, where the disagreement can lead to better results.

Business is inherently social, and the social, intellectual, and subjective elements of boss-dom and subordinate-dom are massively important.  Though obvious, they are usually neglected.  Choosing your bosses and following them to success – and then helping your key people do the same – is not only one of the most effective ways to get ahead, but also one of the most pleasurable.

Subscribe to my blog posts


This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Amazon UK ICON   Amazon US ICON