Why the world still needs bosses

December 6, 2011: 10:34 AM ET

A tyrant of a boss is not an effective leader in any work environment, but there are several situations where managers need to use their formal authority.

By Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, contributors

FORTUNE -- Next time you watch an action movie, look for the obligatory scene when the person in charge goosesteps through a crowd of underlings barking orders right and left, each ending with an emphatic "...NOW!"

Perhaps in the minds of the young males for whom those movies are usually made, that's how bosses should act. But such behavior has fallen out of favor in most organizations today for good reason. As a manager and leader dealing with problems and solutions not easily defined or specified, you need every possible ounce of people's intelligence, knowledge, judgment, creativity, and passion. Because such things can only be given, not compelled, casting every request or direction in terms of "Do it now because I'm in charge!" isn't likely to elicit people's full commitment.

Nothing, however, is black and white. We once got to know the editorial staff of a magazine published by a large association of professionals. It was produced by an editor and five intelligent and knowledgeable -- not to mention opinionated and independent -- senior editors.

When the editor left, the association decided to replace her role with an editorial committee of the senior editors, who were delighted by the opportunity to make their own decisions.

About six months later, we asked one of the editors how that arrangement was working. Not well, apparently. Yes, the greater autonomy was nice. Editors on the committee tended to give each other real freedom in pursuing articles that interested them. But over those six months, the magazine had lost its focus. Articles covered a potpourri of topics without exploring any issue in depth, and readers were beginning to notice.

No one, including the editors, was happy with these developments. But when the committee tried to come up with a specific theme for an upcoming issue, members couldn't agree on either the specific point or what to present under that topic. Simply voting on questions created winners and losers, with most members convinced they were losing more than others. Compromising -- finding a middle ground -- satisfied no one. After eight months, the senior editors asked the association to appoint an editor.

As the pendulum at companies and other organizations has swung toward more egalitarian leadership, a trend we support, remember that there still are times when someone needs to be in charge. We hardly advocate the kind of "I'm the boss!" tyranny seen in many action movies, but there are situations when the person given responsibility for the work of others cannot shrink from making choices and exercising authority -- in short, from being a boss in the best sense of the word.

Bosses are needed in these situations:

To respond quickly and decisively in emergencies

In a crisis, when there's little time for full discussion, people will look to you for clear and decisive direction. You'll want to gather information quickly, identify alternatives, and then take decisive action.

To resolve disagreements that the group cannot address by itself

There are situations when you must make a choice so the group can move forward. You'll have to explain the reasons for your decision, especially to those who preferred some other choice, but most people in these circumstances will prefer progress to impasse. This was the primary problem at the magazine.

Keeping the group true to its own standards

You need to step in when something is pushing your group to violate one of its mutual values, whether it has to do with the quality of the group's work, sticking to a deadline, fairness, openness to opposing points of view, or recognizing the needs of other groups.

Maintaining goals and boundaries

This is a core concept of management and leadership. Goals and strategies say, "Go here, not there." Budgets set limits. Policies, laws, regulations, and ethics create borders. And coming up with guidelines for specific tasks -- "don't go further than this" or "don't spend more than X dollars" -- shape the constraints to specific circumstances and individuals.

Authority is a tool for defining a group's playing field and goal lines. While members should participate in setting these constraints, once they're set, people will expect you, the boss, to enforce them.

To keep the focus on what matters most

Handing out arbitrary orders and directions rarely works well, but you can focus people on areas of concern. Suppose you fear customer service is deteriorating. Instead of imposing new procedures, have your staff talk to 10 customers each about service. Such assignments, along with asking questions, for example, can lead people to discover problems and priorities for themselves.

These are not cases where it's merely okay to exercise authority. When they appear, you must use your authority to keep your group focused and productive.

Linda A. Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Kent Lineback, a writer with 30 years of management experience, are co-authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader.

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Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback

Linda A. Hill is Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School where she chairs the HBS Leadership Initiative. Kent Lineback, now a writer, was for nearly 30 years a manager and executive in business and government. They are co-authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader.

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