Are you or have you ever been a boss or been someone who has a boss? Chances are, the answer is yes. If so, then this series of essays is for you.
Way back in March 2021, a Twitter user who goes by “Angry Staff Officer” (@pptsapper) posted a pithy and insightful list of “Rules for Army Leaders.” As I am sure you have already surmised, these rules, though specifically addressed to Army leaders, readily apply to any military leader, such as Navy leaders or Space Force leaders (though Space Force rucksacks may be weightless), but did you guess that they also apply just as well to any leader in any walk of life, including civilian bosses?
Over five consecutive weeks we will continue to take a look at each of these rules in turn and apply them to your experience with daily bossing, be you a bosser or a bossee.
Always Carry Your Own Ruck
I wrote an essay back in December 2020 called “Stuff Your Ego in a Sack and Throw It in the River,” which will have some pertinence here. This time, though, rather than a container for self-conceit, the metaphorical sack is a burden to bear, a military rucksack. I am not sure why both Angry Staff Officer and I settled on wildly divergent metaphors involving sacks to argue for suppression of the ego, so I will leave that observation for others to contemplate.
Speaking strictly as a chronic civilian here and with all the knowledge and authority that status conveys, I imagine that in the military the ruck represents both burden and sustenance. One would not want to undertake an extended adventure on foot without one’s ruck and all it bears, but the more plentiful and indulgent its contents, the heavier it gets. In saying “Always carry your own ruck,” Angry Staff Officer’s point is that Army leaders should take responsibility for and bear the burden of their own needs and conveniences.
Same goes for leaders in any walk of life. We all know the stereotype of the overbearing, self-important boss who will not even deign to make his (yes, his) own coffee. The type is a standard in movies and television. His secretary is supposed to drop all her (yes, her) work and fetch him his beverage—“Don’t forget this time, that’s two sugars and some cream, and would it kill you to get me a cruller?”
Perhaps, though, those days are long past.
(Pause for laughter.)
Whether you perceive that scenario as Paleolithic or as immediate, most bosses are not so directly demanding, yet they still regularly insist that their people do their fetching. I am not focusing here on the worst-case jerks, the ones who have their staff members pick up their dry cleaning or walk the mangy mutt they insist on dragging to the office. What about the more mundane indignities bosses inflict on their underlings, such as dumping difficult work or even their dirty work?
Now, sometimes it is necessary for bosses to delegate their dirty work to an employee so that the boss can rise above the politics of a situation. For instance, a boss may have an underling deliver minor bad new of the your-office-will-be-downgraded variety. I have had to deliver that news, and the effect was such that the employee blamed me and not my boss, which was probably good for the organization at that moment. Other times, perhaps not so much.
But some bosses use their employees as shields, which is precisely the opposite of what a boss should do as the first installment of this series argues. Bosses who avoid confrontation (a mark of rank incompetence) or who are just plain lazy (a mark of rank laziness) will dump that nasty business on others indiscriminately. One great example of this is the CEO who decides on a major and unpopular policy shift but leaves it to middle management to present to staff. Neat. I say if you are so committed to your new direction, you should want to crow about it, right? Otherwise, if you broke it, you own it.
That’s the thing about bosses and rucks. Bosses not only should carry their own ruck, but they also own what’s in it. If you filled it with garbage, then that’s your garbage—carry it. If you stuffed it with your gargantuan ego, then toss it in the river.
And make your own damn coffee. Oh, and here’s an idea, serve it to others. I knew a boss who had an espresso maker and would serve espresso at meetings. Afterward, his people, usually hyped-up and wild-eyed with caffeine, would offer to wash the cups, but he would just tell them to leave the dishes. Some assumed his assistant would clean them up. After hours, though, you could find him in the office kitchen doing dishes, and when asked why, he would explain that it was his daily reminder that he was not all that. Doing dishes gave him a a brief respite from his sense of self-importance and a wee bit of perspective at the end of the workday. The dirty espresso cups may have been a small item in his ruck, but he made a point of carrying them.
Importantly, carrying your own ruck has nothing to do with effective delegating. Good leaders delegate wisely, with an emphasis on that qualifier—wisely. Delegating is not dumping work. Delegating is a way to involve employees and develop new talent. It is also a way to innovate and learn for both the boss and the employee (assuming you are not already working them to death, and shame on you if you are). I will leave my thoughts on delegation for a future essay.
Carrying your own ruck, though, is entirely different. Your ruck contains your stuff, the stuff you should handle. It’s your burden to bear, not your people’s. Perhaps you have had to carry your current or previous boss’s ruck, and you think that is how it is done. After all, you get more respect (however grudging) if you are too important to carry your own ruck, right?
Don’t be a jerk. Respect is earned. It is not an imposition. Employees who truly respect their bosses are going to be more productive and loyal. Esteem is grown organically, not dropped like manna or meteors from on high. Employees who have to carry their boss’s ruck may do so out of fear or in order to kiss up to the boss (bosses beware!), but they don’t respect the boss. This point should be obvious, but it escapes so many.
So, carry your own ruck, and if you think it is too heavy for you, stuff your ego in it and see what real weight feels like. Now march. If you find your ego is too much to bear, go throw it in the river.
Next Thursday: Rule 4, “Knowing when to leave is more valuable than never quitting.”
Query of the Week
The Rucksack Challenge
What’s in your ruck? Who carries it? Why?
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