“I don’t care if you have to take drugs, you have to build it in six months,” said my boss, Khurshed Birdie, when I told him he was on drugs if he thought my team could create a software development toolset in less than three years. This was in 1986 at Credit Suisse First Boston, one of New York City’s top investment banks. We were rebuilding the company’s trade processing systems to run on a client–server model of computing. This technology is common now, but then it was as futuristic as “Star Wars.”

Superbosses take chances on unconventional, raw talent and build self-confidence. Tweet This Quote

The result was that my team worked day and night to build a technology that became the foundation of the company’s information systems. It gave Credit Suisse First Boston a competitive edge and led IBM to invest $20 million in a spinoff company that was formed to market the tools we had developed.

I was a lowly computer programmer-analyst when Birdie hired me: a computer geek who didn’t own any three-piece suits, white two-ply cotton shirts, or wing-tipped Oxford shoes—the uniform of investment bankers. Yet, I was hired on the spot. I had some far-out ideas about how computer systems could be built, but didn’t believe for a second that I could implement them.

My boss did—he believed in me more than I did, and he bet a $100 million project on my vision. He allowed me to expand my team from four to 55 people and shielded me from criticism by other teams who had to use my tools to build their systems—and who thought I was crazy. There were a lot of problems along the way, and Birdie allowed me to learn from my mistakes. Then, he promoted me to Vice President of Information Technology when I achieved success.

Superbosses take pride in bringing others along and care deeply about the success of their protégés. Tweet This Quote

Birdie was what Sydney Finkelstein, a Dartmouth business professor, in his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent, calls a “superboss.”

As Finkelstein explains, superbosses take chances on unconventional talent. Oracle’s founder, Larry Ellison, hired candidates who had accomplished something genuinely difficult, rather than those with formal qualifications, because he believed they would rise to the technical challenges. Designer Ralph Lauren offered jobs to strangers whom he met while dining in New York City restaurants. Superbosses take raw talent and build self-confidence. They hire for intelligence, creativity, and flexibility—and are not afraid of people who may be smarter than they are.

Under Finkelstein’s definition of superbosses, Birdie would be categorized as a “glorious bastard”: someone who cares only about winning. Deep down, he had a good heart—but was ruthless in setting expectations and driving people to work extremely hard. I’ll never forget him telling me that “Christmas was an optional holiday.” These bosses realize that to get the very best results, they need to drive people to perform beyond what seems reasonable and achievable.

Superbosses are not afraid of people who may be smarter than they are. Tweet This Quote

Even though I achieved a lot, I hated working for Birdie, because I had to neglect my family for months on end. This isn’t something I would ever do to my employees. My next boss, Gene Bedell was very different. He left his job as managing director of information technology in order to found Seer Technologies, the start-up that IBM had funded. Bedell convinced me to leave my high-paying investment-banking job to join him in a number-two role, as chief technology officer, at the low-paying, high-risk, startup.

Bedell was what Finkelstein calls a “nurturer”: someone who coaches, inspires, and mentors. These superbosses take pride in bringing others along and care deeply about the success of their protégés; they help people accomplish more than they’d ever thought they could.

Superbosses drive people to perform beyond what seems reasonable and achievable. Tweet This Quote

Bedell managed by a method he called “outstanding success possibilities.” He challenged his executives to set ultra-ambitious goals and then find unconventional ways to achieve them. Instead of managing to what was achievable and possible, we shot for the impossible. Then, we did whatever it took to get there—without worrying about failure or looking back. It is amazing what you can achieve when you have a single-minded focus. We took Seer Technologies from zero to $120 million in annual revenue and an IPO in just five years—faster than any other software company of that era, including Microsoft and Oracle.

Superbosses create master–apprentice relationships. They customize their coaching to what each protégé needs and are constant fonts of practical wisdom. Bedell taught me how to sell. A year after the company was formed, he sent me to Tokyo to sell IBM-Japan on an $8.6 million deal to fund the creation of a Japanese version of our product. I didn’t think that a techie like me could do these things; he taught me that selling was an art that could be learned and perfected.

Superbosses aren’t just in corporations—they can be found everywhere. Tweet This Quote

I helped our salespeople close more than $200 million in software deals. That is another skill that superbosses have, building what Finkelstein calls the “cohort effect”: teamwork and competition combined. Lorne Michaels, for example, who created Saturday Night Live, judged writers and performers by how much of their material actually went to air—but they had to do it with the support of their coworkers, the people they were competing with.

A common trait of superbosses is the ability to delegate work and build jobs on the strengths of their subordinates. They trust them to do their jobs and are as supportive as can be. They remain intimately involved in the details of the businesses and build true friendships. Bedell often invited my family to his vacation home near the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He took me to Skip Barber Racing School to learn how to race a Formula Ford, and built a gym in his basement so that his executive team could lift weights together.

You will gain as much as the people you help—and build a better company. Tweet This Quote

You will find the alumni of our project at Credit Suisse First Boston and Seer Technologies in senior leadership roles now, at companies such as IBM, PayPal, American Express, and every one of the top investment banks. Many started their own companies, as I later did. There are literally hundreds of people who built successful careers because of my two superbosses. When I became an academic later in life, I was fortunate to have two superboss deans at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Kristina Johnson and Tom Katsouleas, who nurtured me. Superbosses aren’t just in corporations—they can be found everywhere.

Yes, I know that I got lucky in having good bosses; most are jerks who demotivate employees, slow their growth, backstab, and take credit for others’ work. You are usually stuck with whomever you get. But there is nothing that stops you from being a superboss. As you begin to achieve success, start helping others and nurturing your colleagues and subordinates. Show the leadership qualities that you’d like your own boss to have. You will gain as much as the people you help—and build a better company.


A version of this post originally appeared on the Washington Post.

About the author

Vivek Wadhwa

Vivek Wadhwa

Vivek is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; VP of Innovation and Research at Singularity University; and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University. He is author of "The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent."

  • Victor Ribakare

    I had to favorite this article because it speaks to me! I am a fan of the term ‘SuperBoss”. It displays that there is more to a boss besides the typical power figure who assigns tasks and expects results. A superboss goes beyond the expectations of the generic boss. Being a Superboss is caring more about the individuals around you than the profits and timelines. It involves finding ways to better each employee, providing each with skills for the future, which ends up helping the company in the long run. I see more SuperBosses at least at my university compared to a regular boss. The millennial shift that we are witnessing has played an great role influencing the development of a SuperBoss. Millennials have no problem leaving a job where they don’t feel valued or see no development opportunities. A boss has the ability to change or break a person, but a SuperBoss is there to save the day!

  • Claire Salvucci

    I thought that this article gave some great insight into what a “super boss” really is. I could relate to this article because I have had bosses that push me and go above and beyond to make sure that I reach my fullest potential. If I were to ever go into a management type position I would strive to be a “super boss”!

  • Rachel Rodriguez

    I really enjoyed reading this article, I think the impact a good boss and a bad boss can have on a person can either make or break them. I think the bosses who do not help you to achieve the goals they set for you or, expect you to work holidays without any reward to words of encouragement will make people hate their job or burnout quickly. i know that i would work a lot harder for a boss that encourages me and makes a good working environment then one that does the opposite. I hope that if I ever become a boss myself I can inspire people and be a superboss.

  • Max Mantey

    Great article. I think rules that apply to being a super boss can also apply to being a great coach/teacher or leader in general. I’ve been lucky enough to have a super boss that truly inspired me to show up to work every day and do my best. The more companies that have super bosses the more productivity our economy will see.

  • Taylor Lonsdale

    “Superbosses take raw talent and build self-confidence. They hire for intelligence, creativity, and flexibility—and are not afraid of people who may be smarter than they are.” I’ve been in conversation with my bosses lately and this is a common thought process that they both have (2 completely different fields of work – one a nonprofit, the other a massage spa). I think that, especially considering today’s workforce, this is so important to remember and understand. A college degree is more common than it was 20 years ago so it’s important that you have something else to offer. I appreciate the fact that there are SuperBosses out there that recognize this and are seeking more than just “5 years experience”. In my opinion, it’s a lot easier that a SuperBoss hire an employee that has great work ethic that can learn a skill versus hiring an employee that may have the skill but has no work ethic. There are things that can be learned and I don’t believe work ethic is one of them. I really appreciate a boss that can recognize this and help an employee reach their full potential.

  • James Robertson

    Max, I agree with your notion in that super bosses can be compared to great coaches, teachers, and any type of leader in general. I have not experience a super boss like yourself but look forward to in the future as well as the possibility of being one myself. Nurturing others and giving them the key tools to put their raw talent and skill to benefit a company and many other people is inspiring and motivating.

  • Michael Kaelin

    I enjoyed this article because I believe that for a company or any organization to flourish, they need to be lead by a great leader. I think that the term Superboss is very appropriate for describing the kind of leader we all hope to be no matter what field we are in. Thank you Vivek

  • Logan Coffman

    Great points on the role that Millennials play in the equation Victor. Millennials are definitely more adamant about finding intrinsic motivation in their work and it takes a true SuperBoss to bring out the value in one’s work so that we can see it as it truly is. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Emily Butler

    I love reading articles like this because as a young business student they really appeal to me. It teaches a lot about what to anticipate in the years to come. I think it’s 100% accurate that there are different kind of bosses and I like the idea of “superbosses” and “nurturers” and that each is effective in their own ways. I’ve had good bosses and bad bosses even within in the few jobs I have and you kind of just have to take the cards you’re handed when it comes to your boss but you can learn something from everyone.

  • Danielle Flynn

    This article caught my eye as business student striving to be at the top of the corporate ladder one day. I enjoyed who the author showed to different types of bosses from his own personal experiences and showed the pros and cons of both bosses. Besides personal experiences, I liked how he then outlined the traits a super boss should hold and how to become a super boss. The points that stood out to me were how a super boss will trust their employees to do their job while also being intimately involved with he business enough. Finding a good balance between boss and true friendship can be difficult, maybe even one of the most difficult things as a boss, so it helps show that you can find a perfect medium as a boss.

  • Daniel Hartman

    Strong leadership is the key to a strong workplace. The attitude of any leader determines the productivity and their reputation among their workers is as important, if not more, than their reputations among other leaders. for example, a U.S. president whose is loved dearly by U.S. citizens would be much more productive and powerful than a president who was only liked by foreign leaders. Strong leadership is an important aspect of business, but a good leader is better in almost every way.

  • Amanda

    I found this article to be empowering and moving. It made me think of leadership in a different perspective. While I understand not everyone can be a super boss, I believe that it can be something one strives for. After reading this article, I hope that I am fortunate enough to encounter people who push me to my fullest potential and that someday I can do the same.

  • Samuel Cannon

    I really enjoyed this article because it puts a completely new perspective on executives in business position. The fact that they are able to motivate large groups of people to accomplish some fairly difficult tasks is extremely moving. I can only hope that one day I am a leader in a corporation that can help shape the growth of those around me.

  • Adam Bundy

    I would agree that the described “super bosses” can be extremely effective when given the right team and when working towards a specific task. However I would question how effective they are in the long run. Bosses that set ridiculous goals are bound to fall short eventually and bosses that work employees are almost guaranteed to burn them out long term. That’s not to say say that they don’t have their place, I just question their long term effectiveness when it’s no longer them working with a small handpicked group towards a single goal.

  • Noah Green

    Think about all the bosses you have ever had. I bet as you read that sentence you thought of your first boss, a few bosses in between, your best boss, but most likely your worst boss. Why do our worst bosses stick around in our memory? It’s simply because they were AWFUL. I had a boss who I despised. Every day I hated going to work because I had to deal with her utter bullshit and her disrespect for not only her staff but the company in general. When I got a new boss, my perspective was completely changed because she treated her staff correctly, listened to feedback, but most importantly had full respect for everyone. Her persona made me want to be a better employee and I ended up working harder to get a promotion. On another note, I really like how the article states, “Superbosses drive people to perform beyond what seems reasonable and achievable.” People in that leadership position got there because they worked hard and earned it. If a boss can motivate their employees there is no limit to the potential that can occur.

  • Kunal Patel

    I believe this article has a real focus on those ambitious few who are able to gain their own first hand life experience and then choose to give back their knowledge and experience to those less experienced. I enjoyed the statement “Show the leadership qualities that you’d like your own boss to have” because I believe this is what makes a company and ultimately a corporation to run smoothly and effectively.

  • Katie Frank

    Noah, I completely agree. My worst boss always seems to be the first that comes to my mind when I think of bosses. I also find it interesting how different the employee dynamic was under our terrible boss and then later a much better one. I definitely noticed a direct correlation between work ethic and overall sense of community with the quality of the boss.

  • Gregory Clemmons

    I find this article very interesting. I wonder though if some people may be more driven to succeed by one style of leadership over the other? I think certain personality types may respond better to a more nurturing and coach-like management style while others may be more driven by a boss that is very hard on them. In the end does it really matter which management style is chosen or the effectiveness of the boss?

  • Hjordis Robinson

    I completely agree with the idea that people are more responsive to different types of leadership styles. Depending on ones personality, work ethic, interests and communication abilities, they might be more motivated to work under one specific style instead of another. If an employee is encouraged to “show the leadership qualities that you’d like your own boss to have,” then it might make sense that they will work better under only that specific style. Although an employee might be capable of working under someone who has different personality traits, they will not be maximizing their potential as certain aspects of their abilities are not being catered to.

  • Sarah Nelson

    This article makes me think about how different coaching styles for sports also have the same effect. Some coaches mentor their students while others are firm believers of yelling. A boss that mentors and believes in his employees in something I will look for in my first post graduation job and it is the type of boss I want to be one day. I don’t believe in making employees abandon their families for the sole purpose of getting a project done or to make more a profit. Employees are going to be more successful if they are happy and that’s why I believe that a boss who mentors and believes in his employees and gives him time to see his family is going to be more beneficial for the business, boss and employee.

  • Tommy Moore

    Superbosses seem to be on both sides of the age old argument about wether its better to be feared or loved. The argument about being feared or loved is about having people respect you, and the two main ways to achieve this respect is through either fear or love. With superbosses, these two terms are replaced by “glorious bastard” and “nurturer”. The glorious bastard is the one who is feared, as he pushes his employees to the edge in order to get them to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. The nurturer is the one who is loved as they care more about the success of their proteges than their businesses. Superbosses need to use these methods to gain the respect of their employees, and also to get their employees to work harder than other companies. In companies that have normal bosses instead of superbosses are likely to have low motivation amongst employees, and therefore do not work as hard as companies with superbosses.

  • Max Mantey

    For my call to action-

    After talking with my Uncle and Dad they both enjoyed reading the article. However, my uncle didn’t believe in over the top expectations or carrot on the stick ideas. Just empower them and get out out of their way. He exemplifies someone who admits all the time at not being the smartest person in the room at all times and I think that was a crucial part of his success because he was smart enough to hire the right people and then get out of their way. My Dad, who is also the boss enjoyed the article and said a lot of what they talked about in their about believing in workers and properly motivating them were things he always tried to do. My Dad has a very close relationship with his sales team, which has been fun for me to watch how he interacts with all of them. My Dad never acts like he is better than anyone in the company because of his title. Just a down to earth guy, which I think gives him a lot of credibility and respect among workers.

    I didn’t get much feedback from students on Facebook about the article. Just a few “likes..” My linkedIn page got a few comments with some people saying how “Superbosses” are rare, but when you have one it is a great situation!

  • Taylor Lonsdale

    I shared the article with my sister because we have both had multiple bosses in multiple different fields of work. Currently, we are both working at companies that we worked at in California before moving to Colorado. What we both realized upon thinking more about this article is that a boss can make or break a job. We’ve both had experiences with not so great bosses and with “superbosses”. Both of us have been with the companies we are currently with for about 3 years so we understand very clearly the business model and the day to day expectations of the job. We both feel very valued and respected in our positions with our current bosses. We have more responsibility, freedom and even more of a say in some of the behind the scene decisions that are made. ?As employees, this autonomy we are given from our bosses has helped us both to become more invested in our jobs. As a manager, I hope that I am able to embody the traits that I value in my bosses. This article has helped me to clearly identify some of the strongest qualities in a successful boss. It’s vital to any workplace to have happy and motivated employees. In order to keep a low turnover rate and be able to provide quality customer service, employees must value what they do. ?

  • Robert Neville

    “Superbosses take chances on unconventional, raw talent and build self-confidence.” I could not agree more about super bosses being unconventional and taking risks. I think many of those risks come from hiring people who don’t fit the stereo typical molds of the 9-5 employee. two years ago I worked in an office and it seemed that we were all misfits that did not fit the mold of commercial real-estate agents but we ended up being the highest selling real-estate company in Wisconsin and believe deep down was because we were unconventional in our thinking and it comes back to our boss allowing us to test out these new ways of selling and marketing and it paid off.