Bossism Is Back, Baby!

Bossism, a term once reserved for political bosses, is making its way into modern business jargon, inspired by Elon Musk at Twitter and massive downsizings in today’s top technology firms.

What’s Bossism?

Writing in the New York Times, Kevin Roose refers to bossism as a worldview that is shared by many executives, company founders and investors, especially those in the technology industry. He calls it “a belief that the people who build and run important tech companies have ceded too much power to the entitled, lazy, overly woke people who work for them and need to start clawing it back.”

In Defense of Bossism

Roose asserts that these believers in bossism view Elon Musk as their standard-bearer and role model. Of course, Musk famously purchased the social network Twitter and quickly fired at least three-quarters of the staff. “Mr. Musk’s defenders,” Roose writes, “point out that Twitter hasn’t collapsed or gone offline despite losing thousands of employees, as some critics predicted it would. They see his harsh management style as a necessary corrective, and they believe he will ultimately be rewarded for cutting costs and laying down the law.”

Of course, by many standards, Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been a disaster, both for Twitter as a business and for other companies that Musk leads, especially Tesla. “In three months,” a recent article in The Verge reported, “Musk has… largely destroyed the equity value of Twitter and much of his personal wealth. He has ­indicated that the company could declare bankruptcy, and the distraction of running it has caused Tesla stock to ­crater, costing him $200 billion.”

But the champions of bossism would argue that all the evidence isn’t in yet. Maybe in a year’s time, the chaos will be over and a new, streamlined and profitable version of Twitter will have emerged. On that front, time will tell.

As for Tesla, its shares surged 33% this week, the best weekly performance since May 2013. So, Musk’s boosters may have the last laugh at any media naysayers.

Sensible Wave of the Future or Reactionary Ghoul of the Past?

Massive Layoffs in Techville

One reason many tech bosses are rooting for Musk is that they too must make serious cuts to their workforces. Their profitability is at risk. After all, the days of virtually free money are over. These layoffs became common in the second half of 2022 and have continued into 2023.

For example, Microsoft and Alphabet are just a couple announcing widescale layoffs in the third week of January. Crunchbase reports:

More than 46,000 workers in U.S.-based tech companies have been laid off in mass job cuts so far in 2023 … and the year is just getting started. That number includes Microsoft’s 10,000-person cut and Google parent Alphabet’s 12,000-person layoff announcements this week.

But bossism goes beyond downsizings. In one recent All In podcast, investor David Friedberg said in an interview with Musk:

[T]here’s a lot of technology companies that have CEOs and investors and boards. And we all talk to a lot of them and they’re all now having a conversation like, look at what Elon did at Twitter. How can we do something as aggressive, as swift, as deep? Do you think much about kind of the model you’re playing for other businesses and other business leaders, particularly in Silicon Valley and how you’re operating Twitter?

So, yes, there is admiration for the deep cuts Musk was willing to make in his workforce. However, this kind of panegyric suggests that what some of the bossist wannabes admire is not just the cuts. It’s the aggression, speed and boldness he has shown at Twitter.

The Upper Hand…for a While…Maybe

The hope of the bossists is that a downturn in the technology industry, and perhaps the widely predicted recession-to-come, will gives senior executives the opportunity to crack down on their respective workforces. They want to force employees back into the conventional workplace. And, they want to instill the kind of discipline needed to boost today’s anemic rates of productivity growth.

Maybe that will indeed happen. In a year’s time, the remote-and-hybrid-work trend may have tapered off considerably and more employees could be burning the midnight oil, so to speak, just to keep their jobs. We may all come to realize that pendulum of corporate power has swung back to the bosses and that, in the final analysis, this is best for everyone.

Nadia Rawlinson, former chief people officer at Slack, asserts, “The current tech work force is used to every voice getting a vote, and it will now have to yield to a new world — one with heightened expectations and disciplined investment. Not considering the winds of change will put the careers of many empowered workers at risk.”

Or not.

There are, after all, countervailing trends that could turn bossism into a short-lived and reactionary chapter that will close sharply on the noses of its champions as soon as the economy rebounds.

The Ongoing Battles for Talent

Tech Help Wanted

There are several reasons to be skeptical of idea that the bossism will be a lasting trend.

First, as of December 2022, the U.S. unemployment rate was only 3.5%, the lowest its been in the last 10 years.

Second, these newly laid off technology employees are tending to find new jobs quickly. In fact, SHRM Online reports, “About 79% of recently laid-off technology workers landed a new job within three months of starting their search, according to a ZipRecruiter survey. Nearly 40% of recently laid-off tech workers found jobs less than a month after they began searching.”

Both of these data points suggest that losing a job is not an existential crisis for most in the tech industry. They have alternatives, at least for now, and so are not likely to be bullied into unsatisfactory work arrangements by the latest acolytes of bossism.

Boomers Out

But there are other issues that can influence the long-term feasibility of bossism as well. For one thing, there has been an ongoing decline in college enrollments since at least 2015, suggesting there will be a long-term shortage of well educated workers, a little publicized disaster that few are even discussing, much less proposing solutions for.

Another point is that much of the Boomer generation has left the workforce and has no intention of returning. The U.S. workforce is still about 3.5 million workers short of what would be expected based on pre-2020 trends. The primary reason for this is that many older workers — around two million of them — have retired earlier than they’d planned to prior to the pandemic.

No Babies Aboard

Then there are other issues such as reduced immigration and lower birth rates. Immigration took a nosedive during the pandemic and, despite the ongoing outrage about a flood of illegal immigrants at the U.S. border these days, legal immigration is only just starting to rebound. At the same time, U.S. birthrates have been on the decline, and immigration is needed to make up this shortfall.

These trends, along with changing attitudes toward work among younger workers, suggest that old-timey, top-down, damn-the-torpedoes, nose-to-the-grindstone bossism will have a difficult time reestablishing itself long-term in any healthy economy.

The Unfortunate Politics of Bossism

I want to back up a bit to elaborate more on the concept of bossism.

Roose’s use of the term seems to originate with a John Ganz piece in Substack, where Ganz borrows the term from the history of apartheid: that is, baasskap or boss-ism.

Something like a class-consciousness of the most reactionary section of the tech bourgeoisie now appears to be crystallizing and, with it, a concomitant set of political practices and ideologies…. The ideology, stripped of all its mystifying decoration, is actually pretty simple and crude: it says “bosses on top.” … But this vision of “freedom” is not only shared by the bosses and their paid ideologues—there is a “mass” component of the politics as well: this ideal of freedom is shared by a mob that worships the power of the oligarchs and wants its own freedom to consist in the total license to behave online without encountering moral sanction from the pestering wokes or to have personal consequences of any kind.

This is, of course, a politically charged and downright terrifying view of the bossist philosophy. Once I read it, I realized that there’s there’s no way to fully extricate politics from the bossist world view, especially at a time when the second richest person in the world seems to have embraced rightwing politics–and at a time when such politics is increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic.

I deeply wish we could leave politics out of it, but the miserable truth is that politics has explicitly and, I believe, dangerously encroached on virtually every aspect of American life these days.

Bossism versus Talentism

The Charming Boors of Bossism

I am, by nature, a person always scrambling to look at issues from multiple points of view. I can, for example, see the innovative benefits that a person like Musk can bring to Twitter even while bemoaning the kooky, ham-handed, and hypocritical way he’s been going about many things there.

Likewise, despite the sometimes sociologically silly, not to mention darkly hilarious, opinions espoused by the All In peeps, within their own sphere of business knowledge (or, as they might call it, their “kill zone”), they’re also clearly canny and powerful members of the investor class. And, they obviously value vision, energy, ambition, entrepreneurialism, boldness, analytics and intelligence, all virtues in which I believe.

But beneath their bestie bromance confabs, there’s a strong undercurrent of amoral cold-bloodedness that implicitly values capital returns above most everything else (except maybe family and poker) and has little patience for any “woke” ethics that challenge their own self-serving world views and, more to the point, their investment prerogatives.

In many ways, they reflect the good, the bad and the ugly of bossism.

The Sketchy Tenets of Talentism

Talentism is a term originating with Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. He argues that “the world of the future is not the world of capitalism, it’s the world of ‘talentism’.”

The idea is that talent rather than money is the true currency of the global economy. “[T]he world’s precious resource is talents,” he states. “It’s not financial capital any more. Capital is always available if you have a talent which is unique.”

Schwab believes this precious resource can be dramatically expanded via digitalization and AI.

“I see fantastic new opportunities in education by combining digitalization with artificial intelligence. That will lead to a situation where not only a selected elite has access to education, but everybody can have access to education. But it is the duty and obligation of companies to provide the necessary platforms. Then I think everybody has it in his or her own hands to use those platforms to acquire the skills which are needed in the future.”

It’s a lovely ideal, one that I share in some ways.

But, more to the point, I think we can use Schwab’s idea of talentism to balance the idea of bossism.

The Modern Limits of Bossism

Schwab’s idea is compelling but a gross exaggeration. There are plenty of people in the world whose unique talents will never be fully harnessed or even recognized. That’s because they lack capital to exploit those talents and/or anyone with capital willing to invest in them.

The ultimate success of talent is largely based on human networks, though that’s a subject for another post.

But talent can be incredibly valuable if properly financed and leveraged. That’s why bossism is such a limited concept, no matter how appealing it is in Silicon Valley at the moment.

Because, unless slavery makes a global come back, employers can’t own the talents of another human being. The best a boss can do is harness those talents with the permission of their owners. The desire to hire and retain those talents is behind all the hubbub about employee experience in recent years. Bosses must help create good employee experiences in the workplace if they wish to leverage the value inherent in talentism.

So, to the degree bossism means making dramatic cuts to headcount, it can only be a short-term strategy. No company can lay off its way to long-term health. At best, they can engage in downsizings that conserve cash and ameliorate the near-term concerns of investors. For a short time, the need to reduce capital needs (e.g., payroll) outweighs the need to increase talent-based capabilities.

Where Bossism and Leadership Merge

Despite being the flavor of the day, bossism isn’t just about cutting staff and somehow “taking power back” from employees. From what I can tell, it is also about about moving quickly and boldly to make productive changes. It is about harnessing the aforementioned virtues (vision, etc.) rather than just wielding some large, ego-driven cudgel against talent.

And this is where good leadership comes in.

A great leader has all the virtues of a boss with few of the vices. She is a custodian of both capital and talent, knowing both are essential to long-term success. She seldom if ever needs to bully. She may not let a good crisis go to waste, but neither does she deeply alienate her followers and sow chaos unnecessarily.

So, beware the gilded appeal of bossism. It is the ultimately the way of the past, not the future, the way of the weak, not the strong, the way of the child, not the adult. Reach higher. Do better. Be an actual leader.

Featured image: Thomas Nast depicts Tweed in Harper's Weekly (October 21, 1871)