Thursday, August 30, 2012


The other day, I heard a story about a boss whose employee approached him for encouragement. The employee was working on a project, and he asked the boss how he thought it was going.

The boss replied with something along the lines of, "I am not your mother. When you finish the project, we'll see how you did."

All of the people who were with me laughed at the story, recognizing the employer's approach as unhelpful. But I didn't.

I have learned a lot about management in the past few years of heading the beit midrash here in Toronto. Helping avreichim learn, teach and grow is quite different from leading a congregation, and it's been quite the learning curve for me. Among the lessons has definitely been that relationships cannot be taken for granted; praise must be expressed explicitly, criticism must be couched properly, and so on. And yet…

… I really like that "I am not your mother" line. It's military, hard-nosed. It's macho. Tommy Lee Jones. Mark Messier.

Listen to this piece from Sports Illustrated about Mark Messier, the Oiler-turned-Ranger:
There is an oft-told story—one that might even be true—that in 1987 Messier grabbed Kent Nilsson, a flashy but fainthearted Oilers forward, and told him that if he didn't play harder, he would have to kill him… Another former Oiler, who won't confirm the Nilsson story but doesn't exactly deny it, either, says, "You didn't get this from me, but I heard he also threatened [former Rangers coach] Mike Keenan."

True, the "I am not your mother" approach will likely prove unproductive; why wait for your employee to come back to you with inappropriate work, only to criticize him then? And it's not terribly Jewish; Moshe's model of leadership is כאשר ישא האומן את היונק, the nurse holding a baby. It's the shepherd tailoring his style for every sheep, per Shemot Rabbah.

But something in the curmudgeon really appeals to me. Maybe it's my New York upbringing.


  1. While gushy praise from the boss would have been inappropriate, even if true, the boss could have given straight, dispassionate feedback about progress to that point, and general tips, if needed, for correction. The employee might have been looking for guidance, not an attaboy.

    Now it's possible that the boss had only a vague idea, at best, of where the project stood. If he lacked the time or inclination to find out more, at least he could have left out the snarky part.

  2. The curmudgeon approach might produce inappropriate work in the short run, but could prove much more productive in the long run. It trains the employee to work through tough decisions and take responsibility for them. I have struggled with this as an employee and also as a manager. I have seem that when a person is left to complete a project on their own, it instills independence and confidence. Both are qualities that should produce better work and leadership down the road.

  3. There are times that the employee needs a factual assessment of his progress in midstream. If a boss can offer this (as opposed to happy talk), why should he turn away?

  4. I'm with Bob. Of course one doesn't want employees who constantly need hand-holding, but it's not possible to tell from your post whether that's the case in this situation. The boss who wants to be completely aloof until the job is done, at which point he can say "no, you did a bad job or did it all wrong" is an anachronism and is not being an effective leader. Time and money will be saved by giving necessary feedback along the way, and the customer or client is more likely to get a satisfactory result. Seems difficult to object to that outcome.

  5. >It's the shepherd tailoring his style for every sheep, per Shemot Rabbah.

    But who's to say that this wasn't an example of that approach...
    Without knowing any other details beyond the immediate occurrence, perhaps the boss recognized what this employee needed to hear to galvanize better productivity...

  6. Shmuel,

    If the story is about a special case but leaves out the special details, what's its value for us?

    1. Good question, brother.

      But that's what happens when you hear a story repeated over by someone who heard the story.

      And, despite the fact that we don't have the whole story, it has still led to this discussion, which has its own merit.

  7. ArghMo-
    Thanks... but I do think there may be wiser ways to encourage independence, no?

    Bob (1), bratschegirl-
    Indeed, he shouldn't. As I said, I think it's counterproductive.

    [shrug] Could be!