Just let shining stars shine
Winslow Wong 

Can and should you outshine your boss? I posed this simple yet thought-provoking question to a group of managers attending my training recently, and the answers given were somewhat mixed. A young woman, who had just been promoted to head a small team comprising mainly millennials, said it’s a taboo to outshine your boss, aka master.

Calling it simple boss-subordinate psychology, she quoted Baltasar Gracian, a 17th century Spanish Jesuit and baroque prose writer and philosopher, who said: “Avoid outshining the master. The superiority of a subject over his prince is not only stupid, it is fatal. This is a lesson that the stars in the sky teach us. They may be related to the sun and just as brilliant, but they never appear in her company.”

She boldly and firmly defended her strong view with cogency and intelligence, explaining it’s unwise in any situation to outshine your boss by appearing too clever, perfect or skilled. Instead, make sure you get occasional advice from your boss to make him or her appear more intelligent than you, besides enjoying the feeling of having helped and guided you. “Also, make sure that, if you’ve succeeded in any way in your work, you should give some credit to your boss – and do it publicly!” she declared.


Looking for promotion

In today’s highly competitive workplace, most employees feel they need to be shining stars to deserve a raise or promotion. While it’s perfectly okay to aim high in life and quickly climb the corporate ladder, outshining your boss with over-the-top self-promotion is generally not a good idea. Your boss might see you as a threat and that could be your ticket to the basement or a far corner of the office, next to the photocopier and shredder.

I remember sending out a newsletter to customers written in a human voice, the same way I talk. The customers loved it, but my boss had a fit. “This isn’t professional!” she said. “I’m going to edit everything you write from now on.”

Another time, I delivered a great presentation to my C-suite executives. They liked it and enjoyed my jokes as well, and I thought I had nailed it. But as I glanced at my boss across the room, I noticed his face was tight and immediately knew he wasn’t happy. He was used to keeping the upper management’s praise for himself, and didn’t want to share it with the rest of the team.

Although I didn’t end up in cold storage, I knew that he detested me for stealing the limelight from him many times, so when the right opportunity presented itself in a most unexpected manner, I quickly grabbed it and gladly moved on.

It’s a dark secret that many bosses might be afraid to admit: they’re leading people who are usually smarter than them. They fear losing their jobs or look weak to upper management, or worse, they might fear that they look like a fool to their staff.

In the not-too-distant past, a boss was to be respected and feared, simply because he’s smarter than those he managed, or at least that’s the way he projected himself. He was often a distant figure whose office was apart – literally and figuratively – from the rest of the staff. For some lucky employees, the boss was also someone to admire, even if from afar.

However, times and things have changed, particularly with hordes of younger people joining the workforce. Business owners or managers can no longer see themselves as masters. You must do things differently as the people you manage and lead are vastly different from yesteryears. You should view your role as more of a mentor rather than the person in charge. You need to guide and encourage leadership and decision-making among your team members. In fact, leading a smart team to success reflects well on you, your team and the organisation.


Make use of their brains

When leading and managing talented people who outshine you in almost every area, you need to work smart to take advantage of their brains. Instead of trying to outshine your charges, encourage them to become more engaging. Use their expertise and knowledge to your advantage and don’t allow yourself to be unnerved by them. Those who feel intimidated will often try to overcompensate by micromanaging. Stop it as it’ll only annoy your team, damage team morale, or worse, they might lose their respect and trust in you as a leader.

Instead, focus on identifying talent and using it to your team’s advantage. Allow team members to take ownership of the tasks and projects they’re involved in. Be supportive of their decisions if they make sense, and your team will develop pride and confidence in the work they perform. This will allow you to become a better leader and manager.

Don’t compete with your people to impress your top management. Instead, strive to enable excellence. Ask your team members what they need to succeed, and then make sure they get it. If your staff have the tools to excel in their jobs and build their expertise, it’ll mean better results overall. Remove any obstacles that stand in the way of their success.

Managers who mentor their team can continue doing what they’re good at and produce tangible work. Besides helping your team and organisation succeed at the ground level, it’s likely to earn you higher respect from your employees and giving them space and more incentive to do their best work for you.

Instead of trying to match wits with your shining stars, make it your goal to cultivate their talent by allowing them to take risks. Smart people enjoy projects that test their abilities. Support and encourage them in the process, and give them credit whenever they succeed. Shield them if it doesn’t go well. Make their success part of your management style. After all, their success is also your success.

Freely and frequently offer genuine praise or rewards to highlight a team member’s expertise. Having bright people on your team gives you bragging rights! Telling others that “Sean is our walking dictionary” obviously reflects better on you than saying “Sean learned much from me”. When highlighting collaborative work, underscore contributions first and foremost. “Sean and I completed the project ahead of schedule and under budget.” Just a word of caution, though: never dole out rewards like candies as this could dilute the effectiveness of your recognition and praise.

Employees are always watching. And, like respect, trust must be earned on a daily basis. Smart people will appreciate the trust you’ve bestowed in them and they’ll reward it with continued loyalty and hard work.

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 254.