In 1966, I went off to Vietnam as a 24-year-old U.S. Navy ensign in an 800-person Seabee (construction) battalion. Though was subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, it never occurred to me to be boss-conscious.
Fact is, I thought the world of Dick Anderson, our commanding officer (a.k.a. God); as I look back, he's one of my premier mentors. But I never paid much attention to him. I had a lot to learn (an understatement), and he was a busy guy. So I instinctively turned to the experts -- enlisted men (surveyors, carpenters, electricians, bulldozer operators) and, in particular, chief petty officers who always seemed to have time to explain things if you were genuinely interested in what they were up to.
The other folks I worried about were my customers -- mostly Marines and Army Special Forces types for whom we were building bridges, airstrips and gun emplacements. I figured (though I don't remember pondering it deeply) if I focused on the customers and the guys I was working with, then bosses -- e.g., Captain Anderson -- would take care of themselves.
It made sense in 1966, and it makes sense in 1994. A lot may be changing (flatter organizations, virtual organizations, re-engineering, empowerment), but I've always thought it was silly to think much about bosses. Hey, let 'em boss (if that's what they do), and devote yourself to getting better at your trade (bridge building or financial planning), serving your customers and supporting your peers. Things will almost always turn out OK.
Is that tantamount to looking at the world through rose-colored glasses? Perhaps. But at least it's a corrective to the tons of books on coping with/managing/manipu- lating your superiors. They are, mostly, a waste.
Of course, I acknowledge the reality of office politics, in the Navy and at your place. But if you're running the best store or best distribution center or best human resources department or best platoon in the outfit -- your "supervisors" will pretty much leave you alone.
And that gets to the nub of my concern: People spend so darn much time looking up (i.e., brown-nosing), that they shortchange the time spent getting better at their craft, cuddling their customers and tending their community of peers.
There's another side to the coin. Suppose you are a boss. Performance issue No. 1 may be figuring out how to keep employees from catering to your whims. One solution is supplanting boss evaluation with peer and subordinate evaluation -- or "360-degree evaluation," to use one of today's hotter terms (i.e., evaluation from all points on the compass).
I favor peer, subordinate and self-evaluation -- with the boss in a distant fourth place. The truth is, I favor hiring people who need no official evaluation and know who they are and where they stand (and act on it) without the intervention of formal procedures.
The catch is that it takes remarkable forthrightness to see ourselves as others (peers, especially) see us; in fact, the more driven we are to perform, the less self-aware we often are of our impact on colleagues. Hence, a little (or more) peer evaluation can go a long way toward smoothing the rough edges.
Bosses also ought to get off their high horses and quit viewing themselves as motivators. The average person, age 18 or 58,comes to the workplace fully endowed with motivation. Our primary role as "leaders" is to clear the silly stuff out of the way -- and let the troops get on with the job.
Which takes me back to 1966 in Da Nang, Vietnam. What "my" chiefs mostly taught me was how to help them -- and the front-line guys -- get their work done. There were a host of things I could do as an officer (if not a gentleman) to make their life more productive -- and, thence, better serve our customers. The chiefs' lessons stuck, and, 28 years later, I belatedly offer my heartfelt thanks.
My CEO buddy, Captain Anderson, was, of course, on to me in a flash. That's why we ended up getting along so well. He, too, was a product of the benign-neglect-of-bosses school. He figured his job was to train the devil out of his sailors and junior officers and to build stuff quickly and well for his customers, not to turn out pretty reports and waste time kowtowing to the big, big brass above him.
Dick (as I learned to call him many years later) chuckled at my utter disregard of his eminence -- and my preoccupation with the task at hand.
He'd gently chide me about it from time to time ("You really ought to salute, Tom, I am your commanding officer."); but he was clearly a supporter. Which I never forgot: As a sometime boss, I've spent the last quarter-century trying to emulate him.
Tom Peters is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., Suite 1500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611; (800) 245-6536