‘The Admirable Crichton’, originally a 1902 stage play by J.M. ‘Peter Pan’ Barrie and, subsequently, the subject of several films, explores a reversal of fortunes which sees a family servant become a natural leader. But, when circumstances change again, the servant is happy to relinquish the leadership role for that of a servant.


L&D professionals are used to being potential leaders in a subordinate role in a corporate setting. Moreover, in any organisation, there are always more subordinates than those given the status of ‘leader’.


The Servant-Professional


At least this insight into the boss-subordinate relationship had the benefit of clarity. But in today’s rapidly-changing workplace, the roles of both the ‘servant-professional’ and the junior worker are relatively unexplored areas of management.


According to the Financial Times’ Isabel Berwick, few self-help L&D texts exist and few corporate development experts offer guidance on how to be a great subordinate. She says, “This is odd, given that even senior leaders are subordinate to someone.


“Being an efficient, effective, committed, motivated and productive underling is complicated. There are few clear guidelines,” Berwick adds.


“The boss’s behaviour plays a large part in determining how team members behave.


“You can’t assume that juniors are always devoted to their careers, or even seeking promotion. Many prefer to ‘keep a part of themselves tucked away from work’ – writing books, working for charity or having a ‘side hustle’,” says Berwick.


Non-Work Life


Bosses should be aware of a subordinate’s non-work life. They should understand that a seemingly small change in work schedule – such as scheduling early morning meetings that disrupt the school run – can have major impact. Otherwise, a lack of corporate ambition can lead to clock-watching and Monday-morning ‘sickies’.


“Fine-tuning this relationship can be helped if the boss is open to feedback from the junior – and be convincing about this desire,” Berwick advises. “It’s not enough to say, ‘my door’s always open’. A manager must go out of his way to create a safe environment for feedback. Otherwise, only the bravest – or bullet-headed – minion will take that risk.


“Moreover, there’s not always just one boss to consider. The ‘dotted reporting line’ continues to blemish many an organizational chart. This can increase stress, divide loyalties and intensify office politics.


“That said, good subordinates should never content themselves by saying ‘they tell us what to do and we’ll do it’ or, worse, ‘brown-nosing’.”


Five Things to Prove Your Worth


According to David Wells, of Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance, “There are five things you can do prove your worth as a valuable subordinate.”


He says that these things are:

  • Make your boss look good. In theory, a subordinate’s main concern should be to help the boss look good to his superiors. This requires a sensitivity to the various pressures that your boss is facing. In return, the boss’ team gets protection from blame if things go wrong.


Longer-term, there should be promotions on offer as your boss steps up the corporate ladder. However, this unspoken deal can break down. There’s the question of perceived bias and favouritism – and then your manager might take full credit for your ideas.


Moreover, if your boss’ superiors don’t consider him to be a high-flier it, potentially, closes off promotion opportunities for those below.


  • Be a problem-solver. You should always keep in mind the management refrain for subordinates ‘to bring me solutions not problems’. There are few things more valuable to your boss than removing a raft of problems from his in-tray. It helps make you more indispensable, too.


However, your solutions may be implausible at best, while your boss may be a good problem-solver himself. So, always check first if your idea will fly.


  • Deliver! No matter how inconvenient the task, it’s better to achieve it, despite any difficulties that arise, rather than fail, albeit with a good excuse. Taking the former approach underscores the credibility of your ‘word’ – and is good conversation-fodder during after-work drinks.


Of course, circumstances may arise when you can’t complete an agreed task. In that case, anticipate the problem early and apply the previous rule on problem solving.


  • You only see part of the picture. What could seem reasonable and obvious to a subordinate might look different to your boss, who’s party to much more information. Furthermore, your boss’ concerns don’t always carry equal weight. Just because you think your boss is wrong, doesn’t make it so.


  • Be enthusiastic. This especially applies to recruits just out of college. Every task, regardless of how mundane or pointless it is, should be embraced as a positive challenge. Even if no-one believes this is how you feel, it removes unnecessary guilt feelings from your boss, it shows some ‘mettle’ and, ultimately, will be appreciated.


A Powerful Strategy


Agreeing strongly with these five points, the business coach and leadership speaker, Hugo Heij, reveals, “Advising an executive who has some conflicts with his boss, I said, ‘Have you ever asked your boss what you can do to help him?’


“Like many others, the executive confessed he’d never thought to do that. Yet it’s a powerful strategy.


“I asked that question of one of my first bosses. Before that, the boss thought I was a threat to him. Afterwards, he started to support me – and we both prospered.”


Heij adds that the role of a boss – a leader – is to develop more leaders, not to develop more followers.


“Moreover, subordinates need to be good leaders,” Heij says. “Leadership isn’t restricted to job title – as Robin Sharma’s book, ‘The Leader Who Had No Title’ explains.


“Everyone’s a leader – if only of themselves,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for (leading) me.


“So, be proactive in developing your knowledge, skills, competence and experience – approaching L&D as a learner as well as a professional provider.”