The Secret Ingredient of The Self-Employed

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Although it’s been years since I’ve had a boss other than myself, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between bosses and their employees. What started this particular contemplation was something Bernice Fitz-Gibbon said in her wonderful book, Macy’s, Gimbels and Me.

Fitz-Gibbon was a farm girl from Wisconsin who went to New York in the 1920s and revolutionized the world of retail advertising. Not only did she turn out some of the most innovative ad copy ever written, the people who came to work for her (and they lined up in the streets waiting to be chosen for her team) did extraordinary work, too. She did not think it was a coincidence.

Don’t start any kind of career in any environment where it is not safe to make mistakes.

She wrote, “I was a perfect boss because I provided a climate where it was safe to make mistakes. Don’t start any kind of career in any environment where it is not safe to make mistakes. I also welcomed wildness. There are always plenty of people around to tame things down. Taming is easy. If you must choose between a nut boss and a dolt boss—take the nut.”

Her philosophy is quite a contrast to that of my first boss. He was the longtime superintendent of a small school in a Minnesota farming community where I had been hired to teach high school English.

I was eager, idealistic, ready to make my mark in the world of education. Although my students did not always share my enthusiasm for Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Wordsworth, that didn’t stop me from sharing the beauty of poetry. I innovated and taught the classic poets with the Beatles thrown in. It worked and my students developed a passion for literature.

Unfortunately, I did so without the support of the administration. To begin with, the superintendent’s frequently quoted motto was, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” This is not a promising position to hold if you are entrusted with developing human potential.

In order to circumvent his rigid approach to education, I enrolled my students in a secret conspiracy. I told them that whatever happened in my classroom was private and they were free to discuss whatever they wanted. They loved the idea. (I must point out that this was decades before the What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas campaign, but it was the same principle.)

My students showed up with anticipation, ready to be surprised. They learned to think creatively, positively, responsibly. They developed a penchant for great ideas. They were determined to explore a bigger world. A number of them went on to acquire degrees in English.

What happened in my classroom back then and in all the classrooms I’ve inhabited since then comes out of my recognition that the work of a teacher or leader or manager in any endeavor is to serve as a catalyst for the creative energy that’s there.

I’d like to invite you to join me in another conspiracy. You can participate whether you’re the boss or have a boss. If you have friends, children, business associates, clients or collaborators, you can be part of this.

Here’s all you have to do: ask people what they want to be, to do, to have and then listen. Really listen. Then commit yourself to supporting them in realizing their dreams. Help them stay focused on the vision, the motivation for change. Make a safe place for mistakes. Encourage them to stretch and celebrate with them.

The more you help and support them, the more they will help you – ten-fold. That's the real secret.