Knowing the Difference Between a Boss and a Leader (and Why it Matters)

Ever notice that cartoons showing “the boss” depict a character with their mouth open, yelling orders? The terms “leader and boss” are often treated as interchangeable in casual conversations. “My boss told me this…”, “We’re working on a new project that the boss assigned the team.” But when you pick apart the implications behind the words and apply them to the workplace, there are leadership lessons to be learned when comparing the attributes of leadership versus just being “a boss”. 

A boss, according to the dictionary, is “a person in charge of a worker or organization”. The emphasis here is on the position of authority, which gives an individual permission to do what needs to be done in order to achieve a goal. In short, the boss has power because they’ve been put in charge—no questions asked. It’s like the parent who is challenged when their child asks, “why should I tidy my room”, and the parent responds, “Because I said so!”

A leader, on the other hand, is defined as “a person who rules, guides, and/or inspires others”. Being a leader is not so much about holding a certain position, as it is about gaining the respect and trust of others and inspires them toward a common vision. 

Ways to be a leader not a boss

By picking apart the terms “boss” and “leader”, we can uncover the difference between effective leadership versus barking out orders. These four elements show the difference—and the benefits—in terms of how a leader versus a boss maximizes the potential of their people: 

  • Approaches work
  • Engages others
  • Builds accountability and measures performance
  • Evolves the organization
  • Communicates and collaborates 

Approaching work: Leaders inspire, bosses give orders

Those working under a boss get the clear message that they only serve to complete their individual piece of a project, whether it is working on an assembly line or doing research in a lab. A leader, on the other hand, values implementation, and helps others understand and appreciate the value of the entire process, and their contribution to the overall success of the team. Inspiring people to be engaged in a shared vision helps employees connect with a deeper meaning in their daily work. They no longer feel as if they are performing routine tasks that don’t serve a larger purpose.

The above also applies to how a leader approaches working with the team around them. A leader or senior manager may have personal ideas about where they want to take an organization, but they constantly look outside themselves, and turn to their team, for inspiration, input, and ideas. They also collaborate with others in setting a vision, listening well, and gaining buy-in. To this end, they set time aside for strategic planning, and support creative thinking processes such as “Blue Sky Café” in order to challenge others to think outside the box and open up possibilities. 

Engaging others: Leaders influence, bosses control

As mentioned above, the boss is all about informing subordinates about the task at hand, directing them about how the task should be done, and monitoring progress to ensure the end objectives are achieved. 

There are many instances where ensuring a task gets done exactly as required is extremely valuable. But the role of boss here is clearly “supervisor”, not leader. A leader is not there to tell what needs to be done, particularly when it comes to senior staff and managers. A leader is more interested in effectively coaching their people to develop creative ideas, collaborate in a way that harnesses team strengths, and become self-motivated problem-solvers that find their own innovative way of approaching their work.

The concept of “push” and “pull” is useful for demonstrating the difference, i.e., Is the team around you pushed in order to get their work done, or do they feel personally pulled in a certain direction because they’re excited, motivated and engaged?

In order to create a culture where employees feel “pulled” toward a purpose and vision they support, effective leaders influence and engage those at all levels of an organization. Leaders do this through their behaviour, and the way in which they lead people and share power, so everyone is successful. 

Building accountability and measuring performance: Leaders engage, bosses discipline

Two important elements of an organization’s success are a motivating environment and measuring performance. Motivating and assessing a workforce through control typically means a system of rewards and punishments, i.e., Do the job right and you keep your job. Make a mistake, and you’re in trouble. 

Great leaders and managers understand their influence and role in creating a great work environment where people feel intrinsically motivated to do their best.  They focus on strength-based learning and training in order to guide employees to develop in areas of weakness and build confidence in using strengths where they show promise. They do so because they know that a focus on the abilities and talents of others to achieve a common goal can be an incredibly strong motivator. They also know that employees benefit from encouragement and mentorship, and as leader/coach, are willing to step into difficult conversations about poor performance so that employees can learn, grow, and become even more successful. 

Even better, when leaders step-up in this way, others on the team become more invested in maintaining a great work environment, and can often be found coaching and supporting each other.  That gives true meaning to “leading by example”!

Evolving the organization: Leaders delegate authority, bosses delegate tasks

A boss typically has to meet a key objective over a shorter term. Therefore, they delegate tasks to subordinates and tend to micromanage the job until it is completed. Instructions are there for a purpose, not for discussion. Leaders, however, use coaching skills to empower their team to figure out what to do, try new approaches, and support them when they go off track or need some extra tutoring or mentoring along the way. Leaders want to see their employees grow and move on to bigger and better opportunities. Bosses focus on the end task goals, and manage people tightly to make sure they are doing their work exactly as prescribed.

For a manager or senior leader, a well-developed, articulated, and communicated long term vision for the team is the key motivator. Once the overall vision or goal is set, they don’t need to manage the details of the project. Instead, they coach performance, make sure everyone has the tools and information they need, and provide positive feedback to celebrate the team’s successes. They are much more comfortable delegating authority and derive tremendous career satisfaction by watching those around them achieve success. 

Communicating: Leaders ask questions and listen. Bosses tell.

The difference between boss versus leader is most apparent when it comes to communication. The essence of a boss’s job is to tell everyone what needs to get done, how, by when, and what will happen if they don’t do it right. 

A leader’s style when communicating is participatory and collaborative, no matter how much power the leader has in terms of making a final decision. Leaders are interested in the opinion of those around them and ensure there are processes in place to encourage input and expertise. Most of their communication is asking exploratory and clarifying questions and actively listening to the ideas and experiences of their employees. Collaboration and feedback are the cornerstones of a leader’s communication style—not because they have to do it. They know without a doubt that it is the more effective way for developing a high-performing team and ultimately, a successful organization.

Benefits of effective leadership

When a manager sees themselves as a leader, the entire organization benefits, not just for one quarter, or one year, but year after year as a successful, profitable enterprise. This is because true leaders understand that leading a team or company is so much more than just getting from A to B in order to achieve a goal efficiently. Effective leaders care about their people. They help them have great experiences and success they can all be proud of. To this end, leaders are interested in organizational development at every level. 

Signs that great leadership is “at work” include some or all of the following: 

  • The organizational culture is known for building and maintaining productive, high-performing teams focused on working towards a common goal and becoming successful together.
  • Leaders strive to create leaders at every level so individuals pride themselves on taking responsibility for their work and hold themselves accountable to their teammates. 
  • Leaders work on continually developing their own skills, so they have confidence to deal with performance issues in a timely, respectful, and constructive manner that maintains or even builds good relationships, even during difficult conversations.
  • Leaders focus on creating a great work environment that retains top talent and reduces workplace stress.
  • Leaders focus on the experience people have when doing their work, not just achieving financial objectives. At all levels of the organization, the emphasis is on building on strengths through coaching and giving feedback in order to make work more successful and satisfying for all, including the leader!

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