"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."
Creator Greg Daniels, who won an Emmy 11 days ago for outstanding writing for a comedy series, says the new season will carry on with a story line introduced in last season's final episode when character Ryan Howard, a former temp, leapfrogged Michael to win a promotion to corporate headquarters.
Tonight begins Ryan's reign as Michael's younger boss. Ryan has strengths that Michael does not — smarts, competence, education and analytical skills — but he's "terrible with people, is pretty cold-hearted and does not win fans at the workplace," says actor-writer B.J. Novak, who plays Ryan's role.
Like leaders everywhere, Ryan will find it thorny to lead without a buy-in from his team. He will attempt to take the company digital this season, only to be met with the resistance every boss has come up against. If Ryan is to become a competent leader, his style will have to evolve, says Novak, who has never worked in an office but says he gets a feel for what it is like when drinking beer with friends who do.
As an agent for NBC, a division of General Electric, Daniels says some of the material for The Office comes right out of the annual sensitivity training that the company mandates. The training often refers to outrageous things bosses have done in the past, which becomes script grist with minor tweaking.
He leads a staff of a dozen writers, which helps him understand that bosses everywhere fear that they are one dumb remark from being Michael. Daniels says he will often utter such dumb remarks, but he has the luxury of pretending it was but fodder for the show.
He doesn't know how banking executives deal with insensitive slips. "I guess they could pretend they were joking also," Daniels says.
Like Michael, Daniels is a fortysomething boss in charge of a staff of twenty- and thirtysomethings. Therefore, he is left to stand guard over Michael's likability. Take for example an episode two years ago where Michael had to fire someone. Other writers saw it from the perspective of how awful it is to get fired. But Daniels knew that it was also horrible to have to fire someone, and the episode's gag became Michael's naive desire to remain friends with the employee he lets go. Michael said it was like going hunting and merely "winging" the deer.
The lesson of The Office is apparent, says Andy Palmer, CEO of Vertica Systems, a 30-employee software start-up in Andover, Mass.: Bosses need to quit taking themselves too seriously.