Mind & Body

Be Your Own Good Boss

I’ve been teaching since I was 22 years old. In the 1980’s, when I started my teaching career, there was very little training offered to graduate students in English before we were put in charge of our own composition classrooms. We learned on the job, so to speak. (I often wish I could track down all those students who sat through my classes that first year and apologize, or at least assure them that I really did improve.)

Being in front of a classroom every day quickly taught me how to be an effective leader. I learned the importance of good time management and of having a plan–and a contingency plan–as well as the flexibility to roll with whatever circumstances developed. The first time there’s an emergency situation in the classroom and you realize all eyes have turned to you for direction, you learn what leadership really means.

Because of this experience, I’ve been able to take on leadership roles outside the classroom, too. I’ve served on university-wide committees. I’ve chaired those committees. For several years, while taking a break from teaching, I served as director of a first-year experience program. That meant supervising a staff of 60 to 70 students, each of whom lived with and was in charge of helping a group of first-year students make a smooth transition to college.

In all those roles, I think I’ve been a pretty decent boss. I still keep in touch with a number of the students who worked for me–I think that suggests I didn’t mess things up completely. But it occurred to me, a couple of weeks ago, that I haven’t always been a very good boss for myself.

You know what I’m talking about, right? We have expectations of ourselves that we’d never expect anyone else to fulfill. And when we fail–inevitably–we blame ourselves. But we blame ourselves as ineffectual employee. We rarely blame ourselves for being a terrible boss.

When I came to this conclusion, I decided that I was going to start employing my hard-earned management skills to my own life. I’m going to be my own good boss.

What does that mean, exactly?

Setting realistic priorities

Right now, I’m working as a professor full-time and a writer part-time. Because teaching is the job that provides my primary source of income, I always put teaching-related tasks at the top of my to-do list. I do this even when they don’t necessarily need to be there. That, of course, means I have less energy for everything else–so I feel bad about doing a not-so-great job with the tasks I really enjoy.

Certainly, there will be moments when teaching comes first. I’m never going to skip class and stay home to work on my blog or my second novel. But there will also be times when writing first and grading second won’t do one bit of harm, and I’m going to remind myself of this when I’m setting my priorities. I’m going to  give myself permission to move being creative to the top of my list whenever that’s actually possible.

Turning Criticisms into Action

I would never tell an employee “You’re not working hard enough on this project.” Instead, like any good boss, I’d break down “hard work” into the specific actions I wanted to see. I might even go so far as to offer a timeline, or ask the employee to suggest one. That way, both of us would be clear about our expectations.

Applying this same logic to self-management, I’m going to respond to general self-criticisms–things like You’re just so lazy–by turning them into actionable goals. What would not being lazy look like?  And how long will it take to turn that around?

Rewarding a Good Performance

This is something I understand on a very basic level. When I supervised the children who served as acolytes at our church, for instance, I always made sure those kids enjoyed a pizza party or received a small gift card each year. A good performance deserves a show of appreciation. Typically, though, when things go well for me, I reward myself only by raising the bar.

As I’ve said, rewards don’t need to be large–but they do need to be intentional. So the next time I’m featured on Huffington Post. or when I finish a chapter of a larger writing project, I’m going to mark that accomplishment. I’m going to take a moment to appreciate my own good work.

Managing the Whole Person

While I do have high expectations of my students, and of the people who’ve worked for me, I’ve never been the sort of “my way or the highway” boss that nobody wants. I’ve learned that it’s possible to be flexible without being a pushover. The key is to make sure that flexibility is actually helpful, not enabling bad habits. Sometimes life intervenes in our plans, and insisting that this can’t happen does no one any good.

This will be the toughest task for me, because I’m supremely inflexible when it comes to my expectations of myself. When I don’t finish whatever I’ve set out to do, I quickly begin to feel demoralized–even when the deadlines I’ve created for myself are completely arbitrary. For that very reason, I’m not going to map out a detailed daily schedule anymore. Setting better priorities and giving myself the freedom to get things done might be the best way of becoming my own good boss.


When you’re serving as your own supervisor, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the way you treat yourself should be no different from the way you’d treat anyone else. A good boss knows how to get the best performance from anyone. If you’re working as your own boss, remember that a terrific performance ultimately benefits you.


1 Comment

  • Reply Brenda Loves Sharing March 20, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    I really needed this reminder. I’m often too hard on myself. I’m a substitute teacher and could probably learn a lot from you about classroom management.

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