Moving Towards a World with No Bosses

I keep attempting to bear witness to and advocate for our society’s continuing transformation from “hierarchies of control to circles of equals”, but I got feedback from my partner Sally on our morning walk today that that is too academic of a framing… Damn! So how can I call this out in a more clear, un-geeky, and compelling way? What captures the essence of (along with the argument for) this transformation? I thought about it, feeling some frustration that I was not yet effective in really communicating what I’m trying to say.

So I suggested a new framing that my comrade thought might be more compelling. In the simplest and broadest sense of it, isn’t it about moving towards a “world without bosses”?

The word “boss” is such a loaded one in our culture, evoking (at least in my mind) an old-school sense of a person who gives you orders, monitors your conduct, and does a high-stakes evaluation of your performance in your work. Someone who is higher than you on the org chart that you may strive to replace or just to mollify. Someone who “bosses you around”, which from my sense of that usage, is never intended to mean something positive. As a parent, I still have in my mind one kid challenging another kid’s bullying by saying, “You’re not the boss of me!”

It is interesting that the Wiktionary definition for the word “boss” cites its derivation from a Dutch word “baas”…

A term of respect originally used to address an older relative. Later, in New Amsterdam, it began to mean a person in charge who is not a master.

Prior to the modern era, most people had “masters”, as serfs to a lord, slaves to an owner, or indentured servants. The transition from feudalism to capitalism and the industrial age delegitimized the concept of “masters” and servitude in favor of a broadening sense of individual liberty. But now there were “bosses” who perhaps did not control every aspect of your existence, but did control the major part of your waking hours spent at work. The iconic gruff cigar-chewing foreman barking out orders in a dehumanized factory sweatshop or the “big boss” upstairs overseeing all the activities on the factory floor through a glass window.

In the conventional mythology of the 20th century everybody in the work world had a boss unless they were “the boss” at the top of the company food chain, or somehow running their own small business and therefore, “their own boss”. Even beyond the world of paid work, husbands and wives often referred to their spouse as “the boss”, or reminded their kids that mom or dad was “the boss” when the other spouse was not home to supervise.

In the world of education, even in the late 20th century and continuing into the current one, I hear teachers justify boring seemingly pointless school work by saying it prepares kids to grow up and live in the “real world” where one takes equally arbitrary orders for equally boring work from their boss. I guess that is unless you work hard enough and acquire enough degrees so you can get a job where you get to boss other people around.

I think we are ready as a society (and increasingly as an entire world) to be done with this whole “boss” thing, just as we jettisoned the whole “master” thing centuries earlier. Sure there will still be managers and supervisors in work places, teachers in schools and parents at home. But I think we have evolved to a point where people wearing these hats will not have to “boss” other people around to facilitate work, education and family life.

I think the work world may be farthest along in this transition, because there is real money to be made empowering workers at the bottom of the org chart to solve their customers’ problems without pushing all day to day decisions up to a manager. That approach saves companies a bunch of money, and makes customers happier when they can deal with real decison-maker rather than a flunky that has to check everything “with the boss”. It certainly works well in my work place, working in sales operations for a major health insurance company. That said, some companies still stick to the more conventional “bosses rule” paradigm, perhaps because ego and privilege trumps the potential greater financial success of the new model.

I am also seeing this new paradigm emerging in parenting practice. In my anecdotal experience, more and more parents who are framing their role with their kids as more along the lines of stewardship than control. That said, I think it would be fair to say this is still an unconventional approach, with a majority of parents still operating in the control model as traditional disciplinarians or the more contemporary “helicopter” parents, hovering over their kids’ lives and trying to stage-manage their paths forward.

As parents of two now young-adult kids, their mom and I had always been inclined toward parenting in a facilitative rather than controlling way. It was finally in our kids’ early adolescence (now some ten years ago) that we cut the last remnants of the control cord and trusted our kids as fellow human beings to tell us what they needed from us, but otherwise pursue their own path forward (be their own bosses that is). That really worked for us (and you can read more if your interested in two of my pieces, “Unschooling rather than Highschooling” and “Uncollege”).

As to education, particularly public K-12 education, as a parent looking on it indirectly (from the reports of students and teachers I know plus reading media coverage), it still seems to me a very recalcitrant control-obsessed institution. Unlike businesses and families, which both exercise a certain autonomy and self-governance, our public schools do not and are caught up in a massive controlling hierarchy including ubiquitous state and now federal mandates, labor vs management issues, increasingly standardized curriculum, and standardized testing ratcheted up to ever higher stakes. This all seems so much in the control model and so far from the more contemporary facilitative one.

I find our education system particularly frustrating to ponder because there are wonderful alternative school models out there – including Montessori and Waldorf schools – featuring that facilitative paradigm where young people play a key role in the direction of their own learning. There are even the very rare democratic-free schools scattered about, that put young people squarely in the driver seat of their own education. All these alternative approaches to learning remain on the periphery because they challenge the dominant control paradigm of public schools and therefore cannot pass muster as taxpayer funded learning venues, forcing them to be privately run, charge tuition, and as such be available only to the economic elite.

In my ever optimism, I feel like there is a mounting sense that our public schools need to move away from this whole “boss” paradigm of state and federal control toward a more facilitative model advocated by long-time teachers like Lynn Stoddard. Among other ideas, Stoddard advocates the U.S. Department of Education transition from issuing any mandates to being a purely educational best-practice research organization. But it is an open question (put forward in a recent piece by Ed Week blogger Anthony Cody) whether the rising critique of a “corporatized” American public education system exercising ever increasing control over our neighborhood schools is having any real effect on transforming that system.

So I for one, naïve Pollyanna that I might in fact be, will continue to cheerlead for an emerging (or at least imagined) “world without bosses”. That is the world I am planning to live in and hope I have some comrades and co-conspirators in that effort.

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