Inspired Greatness
This is my site Written by Alora on December 2, 2010 – 12:53 pm

I’ve worked for some interesting characters over the years. Some bosses have been great, some bosses haven’t.

I’ve worked for extroverted sales geniuses, and introverted operational wizards.  I’ve worked for people who create chaos just by breathing, and for people whose very presence manages to calm everyone without even speaking.  I’ve worked for brilliant absent-minded professor-types, and I’ve worked for walking computers who never miss a single detail.

By and large, I’ve been extremely lucky and have learned a lot from most of them — even if we didn’t always get along or understand how to communicate with each other.

Over the years, something has become clear to me about each of these incredible men and women.  I’ve come to realize that the difference between a good boss and a great boss is the ability to create a legend. That mystique is how a great boss attracts and builds a great team.

Being a good boss is a skill; being a great boss is a talent.

  • A good boss helps cover you while you’re on vacation; a great boss kicks you out of the office and forces you to go on vacation when he sees that you need it and aren’t doing it yourself.
  • A good boss works with you on your professional goal planning and development; a great boss inspires you to set goals you never previously considered — and then drops challenges in front of you for a bit of added incentive.
  • A good boss lets you vent and cry and scream in his office when you’re at the end of your rope; a great boss notices the signs before you hit a boiling point and takes you out for drinks first.
  • A good boss hires strong, experienced people and then works to build them into a cohesive team; a great boss looks for talent, develops leaders, sets demanding expectations and then gets the hell out of the way.
  • A good boss looks for smart people; a great boss looks for people he believes are smarter than he is.

Great bosses make work worth going to every day, even when the project is late, the client is angry, the team is frustrated and all you want to do is buy a one-way ticket out of town. A good boss is helpful and diligent. But a great boss is who you’d rather walk through flames than run the risk of disappointing.

I was thinking about this while reading Steve Blank’s article on VentureBeat, “Incentives are one thing. Legends are another.” Steve recounts a story where, as CEO, he took financial incentivization to a new level, by generating some healthy, motivating drama around it. And, ironically, he did it by appearing to “not get it” and then pleasantly surprising his team.

What’s good to note about Steve’s story, is just that: it’s a good story. And, especially in the early days of a venture, sometimes we need good stories to help propel the mystique enough to keep us moving through that tough uphill climb.

When I think back to my early days in startups, the power of some of those stories still moves me. Whether it was a client story or a team story or some other story, human beings are drawn to stories because they are experiential and personal. There is a power to having and cultivating good stories when you are a startup, and it’s all part of what Steve shared in his memory: successful people take enormous paycuts to do inhuman amounts of work to achieve heroic efforts. And while there are definite ego strokes to be had by success, there are small touches that don’t cost a lot, but which can make the difference between a “good” experience and a legendary one.

As the boss, part of your job is to build a company that can retain talented, energetic people — especially when the outside world can offer more immediate, tangible motivators than you can. No company can thrive if your best team members lose interest and walk out the door. So how to do make sure that your people remain engaged, despite insane amounts of work and huge personal sacrifice?

Steve’s advice is good: find ways to build the legend. It’s not as hard as it may seem, and — even when money is tight — there are ways to do it that require more in the way of attention and consideration than actual dollars and cents.

And, in the end, the biggest difference is simple: a good boss is content to have a happy team; a great boss is only satisfied with an inspired one.