10/16/2013 03:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Everyone Has a Boss

If it is not your boss in the office or your wife, it may be your biggest customer or your client or your patient or your constituent in your congressional district.

Why is this point worth making at this time?

This came to mind recently when a young man who worked for me in a nonprofit seemed reluctant to accept that anyone had responsibility for what he did. For example, this young man submitted his expenses for approval to a female co-worker for whom he had just approved her expenses, when I was perfectly available and the right person to review and approve them. I cannot explain or understand his mentality, but that question prompts this discussion.

A great deal of our democratic market-based system is built on accountability. And accountability is built upon a chain of responsibility which is presumably relatively free from conflicts that can reduce the value of independent judgment.

This phenomenon cuts a wide swath through our world and may be one of the main reasons why we have a good deal less overall corruption than apparently is the case today, for example, in Russia and China.

When it is the norm for people in a chain of command, of almost any sort, to be held responsible for what they do, they feel that and also know that if they abuse that trust, they are likely to lose that position of trust and their further usefulness in society. There is an old wisdom that "it takes a lifetime to build a reputation of reliability and about one second to lose it".

This applies in the business sector up and down the line. It applies in the public sector. And, it applies in the not-for-profit sector.

Years ago, I asked a friend who ran a large and very profitable family business who he regarded as his boss. His answer surprised me: "my distributors". He spent a great deal of his time making and keeping them happy. I had assumed those distributors would have needed him more than he needed them. It turned out he saw them as quite independent and always was concerned they could have replaced him with a competitor. Still, if anyone might have been seen as not having a boss, he looked like a candidate to me.

One thinks of a Senator or Congressman as being pretty independent. The Senator has a whole state of voters/constituents and a Congressperson has about a half million. One finds those politicians running around currying favor with their bosses a lot of their time.

POTUS--the President of the United States--sure looks like a person without a boss. Think again - factor in 350 million voters and 535 members of both houses of Congress and that makes POTUS a very busy person keeping his bosses happy.

Sometimes seen from below, bosses may seem to be an impediment and a pain in the butt--such as my recent experience with a young man in a nonprofit--and such perspective arises from the often mistaken assumption that the boss in question has no boss and does not know what it is like to have one. Of course, that is simply wrong - that boss has a board and individual directors who expect him/her to see that things are done right, and if they are not, that boss is held accountable. And, if those bosses are not diligent, in the case of a nonprofit, there is always the IRS and a state attorney general in the picture too.

Perhaps our schools in their civics courses could make this point to their students to help them, both in their careers and how they view the world around them.

And, it might not hurt if someone reminded our elected friends in Washington of this pretty important point in how they are supposed to function!