06/20/2013 12:34 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

About Leadership: Know Your Boss

I was preparing a paper for an executive committee once and, having written it, thought that it would be great to start it with a quote from Spencer's Faerie Queen,

'Be bold, be bold and everywhere be bold..... be not too bold'

So I did. And this was a great hit. The CEO of our business really liked it, and it became a theme for the meeting. Thus encouraged, I occasionally used other little lines from Shakespeare, or the occasional joke to liven things up. This worked great, and people really seemed to appreciate that the presentations I gave were not as dry as others.

But a couple of years later the boss had changed, the whole executive committee had changed, and I was still doing my thing in the same way. But now it all fell flat. No one laughed, no one seemed to appreciate it.

Sure enough, the new boss just hated when people did that sort of thing -- literary quotes, etc. I don't know why, exactly -- perhaps because he didn't know any, perhaps because he felt it was not business-like and serious. Someone told me that I was lucky not to have lost my job over it.

So there is a good lesson here, about knowing and understanding the boss, in a deep way. Listen to what he or she tells as a joke, and also hear the silences, such as the lack of jokes.

And anyway, it is a bad idea to keep doing the same routine over and over again, like a tired variety show performer. What worked was not the quote, but the fact that I differentiated myself from other presenters by using it. That was what I really wanted to accomplish, and I should have realized this myself.

About Leadership:
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?