Bosses get a bad rap. From Ebenezer Scrooge to C. Montgomery Burns, pop culture generally portrays the top brass as greedy, egomaniacal, or hapless. But among all the horror stories of big shots run amok, let’s not forget the extraordinary leaders who’ve used their influence to make life better for their employees—or even for society at large. In honor of National Boss's Day, here are 9 executives, entrepreneurs, and CEOs who actually deserve that "World's Best Boss" coffee mug.
1. THE EXECUTIVE WHO MODERNIZED BASEBALL
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Jackie Robinson is rightfully celebrated for breaking baseball’s color barrier, as well as being one of the most dynamic and talented players to ever take the field. Robinson’s opportunity, however, was in part due to Branch Rickey, one of the most innovative and nontraditional executives in baseball history. After a short-lived stint as a player, Rickey eventually found his true calling working in the front office. During his career, he was instrumental in a huge number of baseball modernizations, including the use of batting helmets, pitching machines, statistical analysis, and the concept of minor league affiliate teams.
Rickey understood that diversifying the game would require an extremely gifted player who also possessed near-superhuman restraint. He saw in Robinson the ideal combination of ability and temperament to withstand scorn and threats—in his words, "enough guts not to fight back"—and helped Robinson prepare by ruthlessly taunting him. Robinson’s massive success paved the way for black players to join the major leagues, and Rickey continued to be a civil rights advocate, declaring that "ethnic prejudice has no place in sports." Later in his career, his championing of Puerto Rican superstar Roberto Clemente helped lead to a new wave of superstar Latino players joining the league as well.
2. THE MESOPOTAMIAN FOREMAN WHO PAID WORKERS IN BEER
It’s impossible to say who the very first boss was—the concept of paid labor predates the earliest written records—but evidence from modern-day Iraq proves that 5000 years ago, at least one boss paid his workers in beer! This particular tablet contains the symbols for "rations" and "beer" as well as cuneiform writing describing how much was paid to a particular laborer, which essentially makes it an ancient pay stub. While we don't know this specific Mesopotamian employer’s name, or what project he was overseeing, raise a glass to this proto-boss who didn’t need currency to make sure his team was well compensated.
3. THE A-LISTER WHO'S AN ACCESSIBLE ALTRUIST
Famed for her extensive charity programs, it’s no surprise that TV producer and star Oprah Winfrey is also a generous boss—it’s easy to find stories of her inviting employees over for dinner or even taking her entire production company on a Hawaiian vacation. But her staff loves Oprah for more than just her direct benevolence. "[Oprah’s] so inspiring because she’s not just a boss," says journalist and TV host Lisa Ling. "Everything you do, she asks, ‘What’s your intention behind it?’ You never find that in television. Oftentimes the only question is, ‘What is it going to rate?'" Another former employee, producer Janet Lee, praises Winfrey’s ability to relate and connect with her staff. "What was amazing with her was that the company really grew and grew every year and we had more people and more departments and she remembered everyone’s name. I always thought that was amazing."
4. THE PHARMACIST WHO PUBLISHED HIS BUSINESS ACUMEN
Fan Li, later known by the name Tao Zhu Gong, was an ancient Chinese military strategist. Born in 517 BCE in the feudal state of Yue (in modern southern China), he earned a reputation early in life for shrewd battle tactics and implementing psychological aspects into warfare. Later in life, Fan Li became a successful merchant-pharmacist and decided to share his accumulated wisdom for posterity. His philosophies were published as "Golden Rules of Business Success," which emphasized the importance of organization, vigilance, and character judgment to merchants. The "Golden Rules" was one of the world’s earliest books on business and leadership, and continues to be published in various forms [PDF] to this day.
5. THE COACH WHO MIXED CONTROL WITH COMPASSION
Few names are as revered in the sports world as football coach Vince Lombardi, often remembered as a tough-talking, no-nonsense authority figure. His on-field success is indisputable—he led his Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships in nine years—and was frequently attributed to his "tough disciplinarian" demeanor and rigorous practice habits. But while Lombardi was no stranger to a blistering harangue, he was also known among colleagues to espouse empathy and tolerance. One example: multiple former players agree that the coach fully accepted gay players on his teams and ensured they were treated with respect by other players and coaches. In fact, despite his stone-faced reputation, this 2014 Vice column suggests that "Lombardi's emotional connection with his players wasn't just a part of [his] character, but one of the major reasons for his success as coach."
6. THE PURITAN MAMA WHO KEPT THE PRESSES PRINTING
Ann Smith Franklin isn’t even the most famous person in her family—that would be her brother-in-law, founding father Benjamin—but her story is fascinating nonetheless. Along with her husband, James, Ann helped establish the first independent newspaper in New England, The New England Courant. After the Franklins were accused of libel (and James briefly imprisoned) for daring to criticize the government and religion, they decamped to Rhode Island and began printing a short-lived weekly newspaper, the Rhode Island Gazette. James's death in 1735 left Ann as the sole provider to their four children. She continued to operate the printing press, and when small jobs proved to be an insufficient way to earn money, she boldly negotiated a contract to become the official printer for the Rhode Island general assembly. She taught her children the printing business, and with her son James Jr., originated the Newport Mercury newspaper, a descendant of which is still published today. Ann Franklin eventually outlived all of her children, and in 1762 became the sole editor and publisher of the Mercury, and the first American woman to run a newspaper on her own.
7. THE FLIGHT DIRECTOR WHO REFUSED TO FAIL
By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
After serving as an Air Force pilot in the Korean War, Eugene Kranz was a key player in NASA’s fledgling Space Task Group. Kranz helped develop procedures for early space flights and was quickly promoted to Flight Director in 1964, in which capacity he oversaw a number of historic missions, including the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969.
In response to the Apollo 1 disaster, he issued the "Kranz Dictum," which challenged his entire team to be "tough and competent," and more responsible for their actions. But it was the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 mission which truly cemented his reputation as a leader for the ages. Facing enormous pressure and uncertainty, Kranz kept his cool and refused to panic as he worked to save the lives of the three astronauts aboard—"Let’s solve the problem, but let’s not make it any worse by guessing."
8. THE TECH GURU WHO DRASTICALLY RAISED SALARIES
Dan Price, founder, and CEO of tech startup Gravity Payments, made headlines in April 2015 when he announced that he was raising the minimum wage at his company to $70,000 per year. After years of trying to keep salary costs low, Price had a change of heart due to conversations with struggling employees, as well as a 2010 study by Daniel Kahneman that found personal emotional well-being was higher in employees making $75,000 per year. He helped fund these raises by cutting his own salary, from $1.1 million yearly to the same $70,000 figure. The story went viral, and Price found himself simultaneously praised and pilloried in the media (unsurprisingly, Rush Limbaugh predicted the "socialist" decision would be a failure). But a year and a half later, Gravity’s revenue keeps growing and Price recently bolstered his reduced salary by inking a $500,000 book deal.
9. THE PRODUCER WHO'S A PHONE CALL AWAY
Fans of Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder know Shonda Rhimes as an award-winning writer and producer, beloved for her sharp dialogue and diverse, multidimensional characters. But within the industry, she’s also widely praised for her availability and fierce allegiance to her colleagues. She’s known for her "No Assholes" policy: she’s highly selective about who she employs, and often works with a recurring cast that’s been described as "a de facto repertory company." Her actors hugely appreciate Rhimes’ loyalty and direct approach. Jessica Capshaw, who plays Dr. Arizona Robbins on Grey's Anatomy, has said, "The most important thing for me has been having proximity to a boss that cares when you have thoughts or concerns or questions and addresses them in a mindful and kind and generous way … Shonda is current with us. She's an email or a phone call away."