As a reverse fairy tale for the CEO set, the reality television program Undercover Boss is fascinating, not so much in the witness-to-a-train- wreck mode of the rest of the genre, but because it is so revealing of our conflicted relationship with "the boss." The premise of the show—that the only way to get a clue about what's really going on in his (or her) organization, is for the boss to go undercover on the front lines—is all too often the actual reality in organizations of any size. Yet, at the same time, the view of the boss as the ultimate authority with the heroic power to swoop in and save the day—whether that means paying down a mortgage, granting an instant promotion, or banishing a reviled policy—holds sway in real life as well as on "reality" TV.
We live in a world where never before has leadership been so necessary but where so often leaders seem to come up short. Our sense is that this is not really a problem of individuals; this is a problem of organizational structures—those traditional pyramidal structures that demand too much of too few and not enough of everyone else.