CEO Coaching: To Serve at the Pleasure Of …

The phrase “I serve at the pleasure of …” annoys me. It’s used most often in the political realm, such as, “I serve at the pleasure of the president” (most often uttered when someone is about to get fired).

Any leader who asserts that “you serve at my pleasure” may be factually correct but is emotionally damaged. Hierarchy is necessary, and I wouldn’t eliminate the blunt tool of termination because sometimes it’s necessary. But to assert it frequently is the surest and sorriest indication of a control freak.

A client recently said she served at the pleasure of the board. “Yes, you do,” I responded, “but you aren’t a rented mule!” 

One of my mentors from many years ago was a senior executive at Xerox. His advice for me at the time — I was working for a moron — was to always consider myself self-employed. It took a bit for that to sink in, but it allowed me to walk away from several bad situations rather than turn into a rented mule.

I only work with senior executives, but my advice applies to most anyone whose position requires using their brain more than their hands. Treat your boss (or board) with respect, but consider yourself a near peer. If that doesn’t work, try to fix it or find another job.

You don’t serve to please; you serve to accomplish the organization’s objectives. To hew to the purpose and help achieve the vision. If total subservience and bootlicking make your board or boss happy, you’re working for a moron. 

Early in your work life, you may need to put up with a bad boss for financial reasons. Don’t, however, make a career out of it.

Most folks reading this are in a management position. Don’t be a moron. You may be “in charge,” but your task is to align and inspire your team to do great things — and one of them is not to expand your ego! Have high expectations. Be tough when necessary. But your coworkers (even those who report to you) aren’t there just to serve at your pleasure.

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