The Difference Between a Boss and a Leader

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What are the key differences between a boss and a leader?

Here are some qualities and traits that differentiate the two:

Table of Contents

Marcos J. Reyes

Marcos Reyes

Founder, Veedah | Lead Senior Mobile Engineer, Televisa International

The most important distinction that one must understand is that while a boss is always structurally on top of employees or team members, a leader could be someone who is not necessarily the “Boss”. A leader is anyone within the organization who has a healthy power of influence in the behavior and decisions of other team members.

This is what many bosses around the world tend to forget. The goal for every boss should be to become the greatest leader in their organization.

That being said, we arrive at the fact that a boss is just a person who manages people one way or another. But their effectiveness as a Boss in regards to the growth of the organization and each of its members is what transforms a Boss into a Leader.

There are five crucial things that will tell you if a boss is truly a great leader:

Great leaders are responsible for providing team members with a reward that aligns with what fulfills them

As a leader, you are responsible to know what and how to truly inspire people in your team. Sometimes people want affirmations. Sometimes people want more financial success. Sometimes people just want the acknowledgment of their actions.

As a leader, you must understand that giving them this expectation/reward when they truly embody your company’s values is a must.

Great leaders are responsible for evaluating the team according to the organization’s core values

A great Leader will never fire a team member for making a mistake. They will only fire people who break the organization’s values deliberately.

Great leaders are responsible for protecting the rest of the team from cancerous employees

This ties back to my opening statement. There is a possibility that someone with a cancerous mentality is “leading” some other team members. This person might be influencing the thoughts and actions of others in a bad way, thus damaging the organization from within.

Whoever is not a team player needs to go. it does not matter how smart this person is. Staying true to the organization’s core values is far more important than skill.

Great leaders are responsible for making sure the team has the education and the tools to succeed

A Boss would simply ask for tasks to get “done” without caring about what it would truly take from the team member to accomplish such a task. A Leader will give the team members all the tools in order not to do the tasks efficiently but also confidently.

Most importantly, the Leader makes the team member feel like they are in the same team, while a Boss makes the team member feel like a mistake is made, it would solely fall on the team member.

Great leaders are responsible for figuring out why our team members are not succeeding

What is their actual goal? Are they not meeting it? If the are not meeting it, and they need to be let go, the approach from a Boss is very different than from a Leader.

A Boss would blame the team member and would say that firing them was the healthiest decision. A Leader would take responsibility and truly understand that the team member didn’t perform as expected because the Leader failed.

There is always a chance to educate and help a team member grow. A great leader will always take full responsibility whenever a team member fails at any level.

Timothy G. Wiedman, D.B.A., PHR Emeritus

Associate Prof. of Management & Human Resources (Retired)

A leader envisions the future by accomplishing goals

Being a ‘leader’ presupposes that one has ‘followers’ — who believe in their leader’s vision of the future and have chosen to be a part of the effort to achieve a lofty goal.

For example, Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 (as a private company) with the goal of reducing the cost of space exploration and eventually landing a man on Mars by 2024. Currently, SpaceX has roughly 5,000 employees and (according to Fortune magazine) is worth about $25 billion.

In my opinion, Musk is clearly a leader who is pursuing his vision of the future — and has attracted a significant number of loyal followers!

On the other hand, most ‘bosses’ are largely concerned about maintaining the day-to-day operations of a business

And while a small number of bosses who are ‘upper managers’ may well be concerned about developing new products and expanding the business, those tasks are generally assigned to relatively small, specialized units within the overall business organization.

Most of what the majority of a company’s bosses do on a daily basis involves the maintenance, efficiency, and profitability of existing operations.

Thus, while most true leaders are ‘future-oriented’ people who are guided by a vision of what could be at some point many years (or even decades) down the road, most ‘bosses’ are primarily concerned about what’s going to happen in their operations today, tomorrow, next week, next month or next quarter.

PETLO

PETLO

Self-help Couple | Coaches | Authors, 8 Recipes for Life: Find Your Fulfilment

A boss is a position; a leader is an attitude

A boss has people reporting to them, these people are expected to follow the boss’ instructions whether or not they do so happily or wholeheartedly. A leader could be anyone, it could be a child who has the charisma of attracting people to follow their lead.

A boss has given authority; a leader’s authority comes from their character

A boss’ authority comes from their position, they don’t need to persuade others because others are expected to listen to them anyway.

People underneath a boss may not take ownership of what they do; they may think they are simply doing things so that the boss achieves their goal.

People respect and follow a leader because they agree with their vision or they like them. Followers often take ownership of what they do as they believe they are an important part of a common goal.

A boss may not truly care about their people; a true leader cares about their people

The word “bossy” has a negative connotation, it means pushy and authoritarian. Leadership is pulling instead, a leader is influential because they care about their people, people want to follow them because they have a magnetic pull. Leaders create win-win situations for themselves and their followers.

A boss may be a leader; a leader can easily become a boss

Because a boss is a position, the person can have the attitude of a leader. A leader can easily become a boss because they attract followers who support them in climbing up the ladder.

Terrell L. Strayhorn, Ph.D.

Terrell Strayhorn

Vice President for Academic & Student Affairs, LeMoyne-Owen College

There is a major difference between a boss and a leader. Some people use the terms interchangeably but there are significant differences.

Bosses

Bosses have positional authority, granted by where they fall upon the organizational chart. Bosses manage people, make decisions, and can sometimes incite fear in employees with their mere presence. They may have a nice office, dedicated parking space, and a handsome salary.

Leaders

Leaders, however, have personal respect plus positional authority, which makes them a force to be reckoned with. Leaders, like bosses, get positional authority from where they fall in the hierarchical “pecking order,” but leaders also enjoy respect from peers and subordinates who trust them, value their ideas, and care about them as people.

Leaders motivate and inspire, quite often through role-modeling. Leaders don’t ask employees to do something they wouldn’t do (or haven’t already done). Leaders might make decisions but they use a far-more collaborative process that welcomes input, feedback, challenge, and group ownership.

Leaders listen, bosses boss. Leaders give opportunities and optimism; bosses give orders. Leaders may also have a nice office, dedicated parking space, and big salary, but their most precious commodity is non-monetary: the respect, support, and commitment of employees who look up to you, care about you and want to see you and the team win!

Related: 24 Best Leadership Books of All Time

Dr. Chester Goad

Chester Goad

Instructor | University Administrator, Tennessee Technological University |
Author, Purple People Leader: How to Protect Unity, Release Politics, and Lead Everyone

Team mentality

Bosses are often more inclined to use possessive terms when referring to direct reports — “my staff, my workers, “my assistant” or they say “you should do this, you need to do this.” etc.

Leaders, on the other hand, tend to incorporate terminology that supports a team mentality. Leaders useless “I” and “me” and more “our” and we”. “Our team, our mission, our values”, “We should try this, we should try that”.

Of course, we all want to see leaders willing to own their decisions and results but I still cringe when I hear bosses refer to their teams as possessions.

Sanjay Patoliya

Sanjay Patoliya

Software Engineer | Owner, Teclogiq

Leaders motivate their employees, which then inspires them to follow their leader’s example

Every team has a boss, but what people need is a leader who will help them achieve greatness. Bosses tend to push employees instead of directing them. This type of manager tends to never make decisions, which forces employees to work without guidance and expectations while their manager hides behind a wall of inaction.

True leaders frequently present ideas and work alongside their employees

They clearly communicate objectives to the team and their actions are aimed at achieving goals together. Leaders spend time listening to their employees rather than talking above them. They understand the value of seeking and incorporating the opinions of others into the decision-making process.

Bosses tend to dominate conversations

They expect employees to listen and carry out their commands, with little or no direction. This type of attitude is not a sound approach to building a team of engaged employees who want to be valued for their knowledge and skills.

Good leaders treat everyone equally

Giving one person ideas the same weight as everyone else on the team. Strong leaders don’t let personal preferences get in the way of creating a dynamic environment.

Bosses can sometimes pick a favorite employee or two

This can result in unfair treatment, such as devoting more time to certain employees than others, giving them more benefits and creating an inner circle. This typically does not sit well with other employees and often will decrease team productivity and morale.

Seeing that a leader is as invested in a project as the team can inspire others to do their best work while bosses like to sit on the sidelines and only interact to give orders.

Leaders offer sound advice in a private setting while bosses tend to scold and threaten employees

This can leave employees feeling concerned, embarrassed and defeated. Leaders can deliver discipline too, but their approach in doing so should be a learning experience for employees to redirect their efforts away from what is not working.

Leaders know that intimidating and controlling employees will not work in any setting

Fear leads to doubt, poor morale and productivity loss. Smart leaders inspire with trust, enthusiasm, and empathy, and display confidence in their employees to make decisions on their own. Bosses try to create their fear in the team and never think about productivity loss.

Leaders don’t ignore

They invest time and effort into developing employees in their profession, teaching them new skills and helping them advance in their career. Some bosses – especially those who have chosen favorites –tend to ignore the majority of their employees. This can give other workers the sense they are drifting with an uncertain future.

Sergei Brovkin

Sergei Brovkin

Performance Improvement Project Manager and Executive Coach, Collectiver Consulting

Leaders share the destination while bosses tell you how to drive

  • A leader will never call himself a leader, while a boss gladly will.
  • A leader will share the destination. A boss will tell you how to drive there.
  • A leader shoots for the stars. A boss – for the next green light.
  • A leader generates trust. A boss generates fear.
  • A leader works with a telescope. A boss prefers a peephole.
  • A leader will celebrate when you outrun him. A boss will cheer when you trip on the last lap.

Please note, the male form (instead of male and female) used in this response refers equally to male and female individuals.

Carol Lempert

Carol Lempert

Keynote Speaker | Learning Designer and Master Facilitator

A good boss says, “Let’s go” and a bad boss says, “GO!”

Related: Warning Signs of a Bad Boss or Manager

I’ve since grown to understand that when he spoke of a good boss, he was really talking about someone who thinks of themselves as a leader, not a manager. From my own work in leadership development I’ve seen that the essence of what separates a leader from a boss or manager is someone self-aware.

They understand that because of their title, they have power over another human being and they never resort to that power to get people to do things.

They create psychological safety in their relationships with their team and establish a clear understanding of expectations so that everyone knows how to behave with each other and on the job.

When people know they will never be yelled at, or made to feel embarrassed or ashamed in a meeting or at work they grow to trust their leader. Out of that trust comes high functioning teams.

Shayna Pond

Shayna Pond

President and Co-founder, Model Teaching

A boss tells and a leader asks

Bosses approach leadership in a very black and white manner. I determine a task for you, and you complete it; I have an expectation for your job role and I tell you to do it.

This provokes close-mindedness in the workplace and promotes a negative company culture because this “enforcer” mentality stifles innovation. Bosses have a need for control, and bosses are afraid of autonomy.

Leaders, on the other hand, ask questions focused on an end goal and fosters individuals to help meet them: “How can we improve this product?”; “What can we do now to improve sales?” “I have an idea for what I’d like to see – what’s missing from this process?”

Leaders ask employees to self reflect and analyze their own work process to find ways of improving, and leaders ask for input from the employees they hired for their expertise.

A good leader knows her employees should be better at their job than herself and should routinely ask for their opinions and ideas for growing and advancing the company. A good leader asks because a good leader equally respects the opinions, ideas, and value that her employees bring to the table.

Monique Davis

Monique Davis

CEO, Fresh Talent Sources

Leaders serve, bosses boss around

Growing up as the eldest of 6 sisters and brothers I was always called bossy. I was the big sister that didn’t mind you playing with my toys as long as you dress them how I want, name them the name I gave them, and play the game that I wanted to play.

As a successful adult that owns a staffing and recruiting firm, I know the key to my success presented itself when I realized the difference between a boss and a leader.

I lead my current staff by a partnership, career development, and an open-door policy.

Over the years I began to understand that although my sisters and brothers would play with me, they often wouldn’t enjoy it. This example is much like my initial thought process with managing people.

I thought I get to boss someone around. However, that always ended up with employees that did what I asked but did not enjoy working with me.  I assumed that’s what being a boss was – having all the ideas, coming up with the projects, and just having worker bees do as the “Queen B” delegated.

A true leader gets down in the trenches in partnering with their team, understanding what their teams’ strengths and weaknesses are and creating career success plans to develop their skillsets.

A leader has the heart to serve and the directives to your team are not always what you want, but also what helps the team and the company thrive as well.

Nate Masterson

Nate Masterson

Business Consultant | CMO, Maple Holistics

A boss will tell their employees what to do, and a leader will show their employees what they should do

A leader will not ask anyone to do something they themselves would not do, effectively leading from the front, showing their employees that their job is not beneath the leader of the team. This will give the leader credibility when they ask an employee to do something.

If you want an employee to get into a dumpster, you better be ready to climb into the dumpster as well. As a leader, you must demonstrate the work ethics you wish to instill in your employees.

Tim Brown

Tim Brown

Web Designer | Owner, Hook Agency

A leader helps you  achieve success no matter where you will be

A boss asks you how can you succeed in his own space and company. A leader asks about your vision of for the future and helps you cultivate that and pursue long-term success no matter where you’ll be working in 3 years.

Vision is the crucial component to being a leader because it inspires you to move forward, and most bosses don’t inspire you or cultivate that kind of energy because they don’t realize how much power can come from that passion and loyalty.

Even if an employee says their vision is to work at a different company, the power from helping cultivate the skills they’d need in that position – can be used in their current ‘tour of duty’ at your company.

Yes, it hurts a little to advise in this way, knowing great people are hard to come by – the benefits to the extra effort in the meantime, and the understanding you come to with your employees helps you be a leader more than just a boss, and that’s powerful.

Melissa Terzis

Melissa Terzis

Associate Broker | Realtor, DC Real Estate Mama | Founder, East Coast Corgi Rescue

The difference can be felt when a leader or a boss leaves the company

I’ve had plenty of bosses in my 25-year career. Some were interesting, some were unremarkable, some were vicious. Defining a boss from these experiences, a boss isn’t looking for an employee to expand and grow. They want the employee to get the work done as efficiently as possible.

This way they can give the employee more work, thereby alleviating their own responsibilities so they can move ahead (and often in the process take the credit for what their employees are doing.) I’m a believer in how a person’s impact in a company is only truly known after their departure.

A boss leaves a company, and there are a party and a farewell, and the next day their seat is filled by someone else. 

The prior boss’s absence isn’t felt and doesn’t affect the morale of the company.

The effect a leader has on his or her employees can be tremendous. Leaders inspire their employees to be the best they can be. They are constantly in growth mode – both personally and for the company. They believe there is always room for improvement – and that’s not just related to business growth.

True leaders know that the personal growth of their employees has to occur so that company/business growth will follow. Leaders share the credit with the team and are confident enough that they don’t seek glory for themselves. They also believe the failures are their own responsibility and don’t blame their employees.

If a leader leaves a company, it feels like a death.

There is a sense of sadness among the employees who are left behind as they feel like the vision and inspiration walked out the door. And oftentimes it’s difficult to recover without a superior replacement.

Brittany Sherell

Brittany Sherell

Founder, The Intentional Mindset

The difference between a Boss and a Leader begins with how distinctly different their roles play out over time

A boss can be anyone who assumes a role with authority over others, while a leader is someone who may or may not be in a role of authority, but commits to using whatever their influence is in their present role to help others develop into their best selves.

A boss tells, a leader explains. A boss assumes the expert role, a leader guides learning and is open to facilitating diverse perspectives.

Both a boss and a leader can yield great results, but the outcome of a leader always comes with the bonus of mindset shift that allows for those results to inherently repeat themselves on the merit of intrinsic value provided by the leadership.

Nick Disney

Nick Disney

Owner, Sell My San Antonio House

  • A boss tells people what to do and spends time managing other people’s actions.
  • A leader provides people with the tools and guidance they need to perform at their very best.

Employees will only work just hard enough not to get in trouble for a boss, but they will go above and beyond for a leader that they believe in.