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Like you, people have called me boss and I have called some boss, too. I have both loudly proclaimed that 'you are not the boss of me' and sotto voce whispered it to myself, mantra-like, hoping it might give me quiet strength in some overly-bossy presence. I knew the person Scott Adams modeled his iconic Pointy-Haired Boss after, and he seemed pretty much the opposite of Dilbert's characterizations of him, but then he was not my boss. Someone always seems to get elevated to the enviable/unenviable role of being in charge, whether or not they hold the formal responsibility of judging another's performance. Bossy older sisters hold no charter justifying their pedestal.

Some people seem to appreciate a strong authoritarian presence while others seem to just shrink in that kind of light. Bosses get blamed for everything, since they seem to hold superior responsibility, though they also seem rather incapable of accomplishing much of anything. They represent both the oppressive yoke and the absence of it, depending. They might try to be friendly, but who really wants to befriend someone with the authority to be your oppressor?

The whole boss/subordinate dance seems the most unnecessary complication in working relationships, yet we each seem to subtly insist upon maintaining this top-down subjection, perhaps for the purpose of preserving order. This paradox leaves my head achy.

I assess from a safe-ish distance the qualifications of our incoming Commander In Chief and experience no difficulty concluding that he's an idiot. Other than scale, this exercise seems no different than the story-making I convene in my head every time I encounter a "new" boss. My laziest parts want him to prove himself competent before I've seen him in action. I read the baffling vitae. I hear the rumors gleaned from other contexts. I'm clear that he seems almost completely unlike that trusted leader whose tenure just ended. This observation alone renders him suspect.

What does this dance do to me? I might forget while so enthralled with my own projections, that I don't actually know this person at all. I have made some observations and drawn some conclusions based upon absurdly thin evidence. I do not know what I so convincingly seem to know.

I might, in that empowering moment, reflect backwards and within, but I won't. I might suspect that I've brought the troubling template to this particular party, but I will not. I hold this story about bosses, and however contradictory and internally inconsistent that story might be—encompassing everyone from The Pointy-Haired Boss to Jesus H. Freaking Christ—I weigh the situation while firmly holding my own thumb on the scale. I might wonder after my deeply-held preconceptions about boss-ness, but I won't. I'll blissfully project, making myself absolutely miserable instead.

What does it mean to be 'in charge?' Even I have a lot of experience. I know all about this, but somehow manage to always forget my apparently tacit understanding. Perhaps I hold it so deeply that I cannot quite access it, my best defense locked securely away in the upstairs closet when I'm assaulted on the street. In reflection, I might remember how it's always been and how it's very likely to always be. The boss is BOTH clueless and wise, a simultaneous oppressor AND an ally, a stumbling block as well as a hand up. Both. Simultaneously.

Where does this curious reality leave little old subordinate me? It leaves me the eternally vulnerable boss of me, BOTH clueless and wise, simultaneously my worst oppressor and my very best ally, chief stumbler and principle patron. It should leave me at least a little confused because I'm never completely sure what the heck I should do. I experience another real-time identity crisis because whatever and whomever I might believe myself to be, I am unarguably and inescapably "In Charge." I cannot successfully deflect this apparently sacred responsibility, though I often try to do anything but accept it. That son of a bitch what's in charge seems the more convenient and useful target for my frustration until I quite hesitantly accept that that SOB always was me. Believe me, this happens so rarely that this realization always comes dressed up as a shocking insight and not an old familiar friend. It always turns out to be my friend. So far.

I was speaking yesterday with a colleague who has been working under an oppressive yoke. Her boss had gone directive, minutely delineating each step she "needed to follow" to achieve some rather trivial ends. There might be no better way to disable any capability than to insist upon precisely how something must be achieved, so my colleague was noticing that her identity, her essential sense of self was eroding. Bosses seem to do this to us sometimes.

I reminded her of one of my ethical responsibilities, a possible antidote to this induction: I hold the ethical responsibility to subvert the system so the system can work. There's never (yet) been a system so cleverly designed that it did not require at least the occasional injection of benevolent subversion. This universe depends upon such interventions. Bosses everywhere could not possibly succeed if their subordinates didn't occasionally remember that they are actually the bosses of themselves, and act accordingly.

Bosses everywhere (probably even you when you're in the boss role) easily forget that they oversee sentient beings and never compliant robots. They (we) tumble into the cheap and easy tactic of telling others what to do and thereby subtly subvert their potential, at least unless and until the seeming subordinates wake up to their ethical responsibility to blow off the proffered imperative and use their judgement to do what actually needs doing.

This supremely sacred act is not without risk. The seeming-subordinates might misjudge and thereby receive some harsh judgement, or they might properly judge and receive harsh judgement from the inescapably out-of-context overseer. Mostly, though, the system as a whole benefits from these interventions, even when the seeming-subordinates get fired for their trouble.

I've been re-re-realizing that in the shadow of the now looming Trump presidency, I have had this tendency to simply give my power away. I imagine the boss I believe I need and see no semblance of the requisite wisdom in my President-elect, so I slink or sling or engage in any of the ten thousand absolutely disempowering things I tend to do when finally confronted with accepting just who's in charge here. Yes, this, too, fully qualifies as an inconvenient time. Certainly the departing boss has proven himself capable in ways the incoming one could not have possibly demonstrated yet. I feel terrified, yet I must acknowledge that my own humbling responsibilities terrify me as much, perhaps more, than the dread I feel over the incoming incapabilities at the top.

This system, too, will most certainly require my benevolent subversion. I will have to get off my butt, struggle out of my comforting head, and DO what this beleaguered system demands of me, and benevolently subvert again, just like every time before. I can and will ineffectively rant and rail and deflect this humbling and sacred responsibility. Without my active subversion, though, this system of ours could never work. Without me accepting just who is the boss of me, I'm just a sunk as that designated boss. Whatever I decide to do might not work and could even worsen my experience. I have to wonder if the quality of my own experience is worth this necessary risk, though I already know that it is because I'm writing this.

©2017 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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