How to recognise a “superboss”


Research has shown that people leave managers, not organisations. Yet, some people talk about superbosses – those that people would crawl over cut-glass for. What is it that they have and how do you recognise it?

People leave managers
Victor Lipman writes about management. In an article entitled “People Leave Managers, Not Companies”, he proposes that “the central relationship between manager and employee plays a critical role” (Lipman, 2015). In times of so much change in companies, with retrenchments, the resulting uncertainty and constant pressure to do more with less, managers are under a lot of pressure. Lipman suggests that employee disengagement results from management failure.

On the other hand, other management writers talk about “superbosses”. What is a superboss? I’m sure I have never met one. Have you?

Superbosses get results
Author of “Secrets of the Superbosses”, Sydney Finkelstein studied the habits, behaviours and tastes of people considered to be superbosses. He says that superbosses help other people get better. His research showed they possess the following personality traits.

They tend to be extremely confident, competitive, and imaginative. They also act with integrity and aren’t afraid to let their authentic selves shine through. (Finkelstein, 2016, pp. 105).

Finkelstein suggests that the people strategies employed by these “superbosses” form the more interesting area to note. He says they all follow similar principles in hiring and honing talent – which he suggests can be copied. So – here they are. Maybe someone can leak these to managers in organisations with high turnover?

Their approach to recruitment:

  • focus on intelligence, creativity and flexibility in candidates – and don’t hire if you don’t find what you want
  • find unlikely winners – be prepared to hire people without specific industry experience, possessing other related skills/attributes
  • adapt the job or organisation to fit the talent – tailor jobs opportunistically
  • accept churn – use turnover to find new talent

Leadership style:

  • set high expectations eg “perfect is good enough” – instil confidence and exceptionalism in their people
  • be a master – delegate effectively using the talent in the team, yet stay across the business details, and mentor/counsel staff to elicit rather than limit skills
  • encourage step-change growth – create customised career paths
  • stay connected – maintain an interest in people and their development after they have left the organisation

Management or leadership?
To be a manager is not the same as to be a leader. Many managers are not given leadership scope and find themselves with limited influence. Perhaps the dilemma is endemic? Organisations that set people up this way, possibly have this pattern reinforced at every level. A replication of “mini-me’s?” (sic) or a series of Chinese boxes replicating themselves? Likewise, organisations that have “superbosses” tend to breed more “superbosses” without the clone-like attributes. There must surely be a downside to the highly competitive, results-oriented superboss? Perhaps it’s ego?

Perhaps the most effective outcome results from the right philosophy of approach to each business and the flexibility of being able to respond to its needs using the talent available?

Have you had a superboss? Are YOU a superboss? What is the experience like?


Finkelstein, Sydney. 2016. Secrets of the Superbosses: How exceptional leaders hire and hone talent. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2016, pp. 104-107).

Lipman, Victor. 2015. People Leave Managers , Not Companies. Forbes. 4 August 2015.

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