Learning from TV’s Best Boss: Michael Scott’s Hidden Genius

“And I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.”

The above quote pretty much says it all about TV’s Michael Scott: a boss who acted like he had all of the answers, yet he really knew much less than he led on. No show was able to mimic a corporate environment (in a hilarious manner) better than the American version of The Office. Viewers could easily relate to the characters and the setting, and it became a smashing success. Lost in the humor and drama, however, were the amazing managerial skills of Michael Scott, the emboldened and aloof leader played by Steve Carrell.

Despite coming off as incompetent, Michael Scott was extremely effective – he’s basically Yogi Berra in a suit. And, while we must not put too much stake in his methods, his wisdom is SHOCKINGLY relevant to business leaders. So, let’s take a look at the best of his quips, and unpack the true genius of what he said.

Try again

“I tried to live the dream. I tried to have a job, a girlfriend, another job, and I failed. But the good thing about the American dream is that you can just go to sleep and try it all again the next night.”

This is quite a poignant quote about the so-called American dream. To many, it is just that – a dream. But that’s the thing about being an entrepreneur/boss: you’ve got to keep dreaming! For you, it may start out as just a dream, but you keep plugging away at it until it becomes reality. Michael Scott was a man who saw what he wanted and went for it. He may have failed often, but his failures shaped who he was as both a person and a manager. If you fail on Monday, go to bed and try again on Tuesday. Optimism is your best weapon (other than a solid business plan), so celebrate every positive development and keep plugging away.

Keep them laughing (with you)

“I swore to myself that if I ever got to walk around the room as manager, people would laugh when they saw me coming, and would applaud as I walked away.”

As one of the least self-aware people on television, Michael Scott never fully understood the meaning behind his words. As a boss, you probably don’t want people laughing if they see you coming, but his sentiment came from the right place. You do want people laughing – just laughing with you and not at you. You want your employees to enjoy your presence, and humor is one of the best ways to ensure that you’re liked. Even if you aren’t the funniest person in the room, lighten the mood every once in a while with a joke. You’re not going to get applause as you walk away, but you may improve morale enough to boost productivity.

View all employees equally

“Now, you may look around and see two groups here. White collar, blue collar. But I don’t see it that way. And you know why not? Because I am collar-blind.” 

As a boss, you are “collar-blind” and view all employees equally. Sure, everyone may not make the same amount of money in your company, but each employee is important in their own regard. If you’re an effective boss, you won’t have any spare parts; every person on your payroll should serve a purpose and be essential to the success of your company. It’s your job to connect with each employee, regardless of how different from you they may be. Find some common ground with everyone from those in IT to those on the custodial staff. Ignore “collars” and develop a rapport with everyone on your payroll.

Stand up for company values

“Abraham Lincoln once said that ‘If you’re a racist, I will attack you with the North,’ and these are the principles I carry with me in the workplace.”

You don’t want to start a war, but you do want to be principled. Your employees should know where you stand on workplace issues and have confidence in you being a fair and honest boss. Company missions and policies should be obvious to employees and you should be a leader in adherence to any rules that are set. If you back down in front of employees, they may begin to question your leadership. Like Abraham Lincoln, you need to dig in and defend your company values.

Find the balance between employer and friend

“I’m friends with everybody in this office. We’re all best friends. I love everybody here. But sometimes your best friends start coming into work late, and start having dentist appointments that aren’t dentist appointments, and that is when it’s nice to let them know that you could beat them up.” 

Michael Scott wanted to be loved by everyone, but he was still cognizant of his role within the office: he was the boss. Sometimes you need to lay down the law, though you should refrain from beating anyone up. You need to be able to skirt the line between employer and friend – if someone needs to be disciplined or reprimanded, you need to cut through the BS and deal with the problem. If someone keeps missing work because of “appointments,” you need to vet their excuse and figure out if they are telling the truth. There are plenty of people who seem like well-intentioned individuals who actually just take advantage of those who take the bait. As boss, you have to lay down the law when necessary. You’re paying employees to work, not be your friend. Don’t be a dictator, but make sure people don’t cross you or take advantage of your compassion.

Realize businesses are driven by people

“Everyone always wants new things. Everybody likes new inventions, new technology. People will never be replaced by machines. In the end, life and business are about human connections. And computers are about trying to murder you in a lake. And to me the choice is easy.”

Michael uttered these words after his GPS routed him into a lake. He trusted technology too much and let it take him literally into the deep end. He is right about one thing, however, as people will never truly be replaced by machines. Sure, some jobs and processes will be automated, but business is still driven by people. Human connections drive sales, keep clients happy, and create workplaces that produce the best quality products and services. As a boss, you may be tempted to rely too much on technology. It’s a delicate balance, but remember that blindly trusting your technology will drive you into a lake. Use technology to enhance your business, not drive it – people are behind the wheel after all.

Author: Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.

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