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Taking 'Office' Lessons from the World's Greatest (Inept) Boss

Taking 'Office' Lessons from the World's Greatest (Inept) Boss

Steve Carell plays the self-absobed leader of fictitious office-supply distributor Dunder Mifflin in NBC's comedy "The Office."

By Del Jones, USA TODAY

July 06, 2010

Supervisors, middle managers and corporate executives — suits, if you will — tonight will be going to a frightening source for leadership lessons. Many will put down their copy of The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker and tune into the one-hour season premiere of NBC’s (GE) comedy The Office.

This borders on disturbing. After all, the show centers on a bumbling boss and his interactions with a workplace team of geeks, kiss-ups and slackers. But in a world overrun with gurus such as Michael Porter, Tom Peters and Warren Bennis, who have turned leadership into a giant industry of books and seminars, bosses across the country will be watching The Office, not only to laugh at themselves, but to harvest leadership lessons from the main character, Michael Scott.

Readers who are unfamiliar with The Office don’t realize how unsettling it is that bosses may be taking cues from the regional manager of fictitious office-supply distributor Dunder Mifflin. Michael’s character is played by A-list movie actor Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), who exhibits jealousy when his birthday is overshadowed by an employee’s skin cancer test. His eyes linger upon workplace cleavage and, when apologizing for a homosexual slur in one episode, he maladroitly outs a gay employee.

Michael has such a tin ear for the politically correct that in one episode in the first season called “Diversity Day” he asks his only Hispanic employee if he would prefer to be called something other than Mexican.

Yet, among the CEO fans of The Office is Luis Rivera of e-mail marketing software company J.L. Halsey in Wilmington, Del. Like many CEOs, Rivera looks past Michael’s blemishes and finds him sympathetic.

“It’s thoroughly enjoyed at our house,” Rivera says. “What makes up for his character flaws is the way in which Michael conveys to his team that, somehow, he truly cares for them as people. His flaws make him more human and, as a result, his crudeness ends up being overlooked. In the end, The Office employees end up caring for him.”

One ongoing gag is that Michael keeps a supply of World’s Best Boss coffee mugs in his desk drawer, just in case one breaks. “Isn’t that kind of foresight the sign of a truly great leader?” asks Andrew Alexander, CEO and executive producer of The Second City comedy troupe, of which Carell is a 1991 alumnus.

Rivera and other CEOs aren’t ready to declare Michael boss of the year. Far from it. They take comfort in knowing that they are not him. “No matter what mistakes we might make as managers of people, we can’t be as bad as Michael, can we?” asks Susan Story, CEO of Gulf Power, (GUQ) a utility in Florida with 1,300 employees. But as the fourth season launches tonight, a number of CEOs say they draw encouragement from the Michael character because he demonstrates that perfection is not a prerequisite for leadership. Employees will laugh at bosses behind their backs. Always have, always will. But The Office validates that those same subordinates are willing to follow the flawed.

“Michael puts himself in a position of responsibility, where most people feel uncomfortably vulnerable,” says Noah Rowles, CEO of Los Angeles software company Iolo Technologies. “He takes ownership of his flock. The lesson learned is that people would much rather follow someone who is passionate and dedicated than someone who may be perfect on paper but otherwise uncommitted to achieving success as a group.”

Inept, but also in charge

In the face of employees who are brown-nosers and idlers, Michael Scott survives and occasionally shines, which proves you need neither strength, courage nor competence to lead, Rowles says.

“Michael is the butt of everyone’s joke, and no one seems to take him seriously,” Rowles says. “However, if you observe his character, a different story unfolds. He may be infinitely inept, inexcusably inappropriate and incessantly inane, but when the you-know-what hits the fan, he is also in charge.”