The Stark Differences Between a Boss and a Leader

6 min read
Nov 10, 2016

boss vs leader

Everyone who manages employees is a boss of some sort. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that theyre leaders too.

Huh? What’s the difference between a boss and a leader, anyway?

We’re glad you asked. There are certain leadership qualities that separate these two concepts. And lets just say that, as a manager, you want to lean towards the leader side. Here are the characteristics that differentiate the two:


01. Bosses are always the focus; leaders give credit where credit is due

Bosses tend to think highly of themselves — and for the wrong reasons. When the team succeeds at a project or an initiative, bosses are quick to take credit. On the other hand, when something fails, bosses are quick to assign blame.

Leaders, as you’d expect, pretty much do the opposite. They understand that team victories are precisely that: the result of the entire team’s labors. Leaders shower their employees with recognition, and they also take the blame when things go wrong.


02. Bosses may be liked or hated; leaders are loved


Being a boss doesn’t automatically disqualify you from being a likable person. But bosses can still be immensely disliked, particularly if they’re the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do type.

Because they are in the proverbial trenches with their team every day and inspire their staffs, leaders are loved. These folks have a clearly defined vision, and they’re charismatic to the point where everyone blindly follows.


03. Bosses can be good or bad; leaders are only good

You can have a great boss, and you can have a terrible boss. But you can only have a fantastic leader.

That’s because when managers are leaders, they’re equipped with a long list of attractive qualities that are proven to improve engagement, camaraderie, and productivity. Leaders inspire their staffs to reach their full potential, which ultimately does wonders for their respective organizations.


04. Bosses can be scary; leaders are friendly and caring


Let’s hope you’ve never had the kind of boss who instills fear in their workforce, the kind that causes everyone to shut up and dive back into work the moment their presence is felt. These kinds of bosses, of course, are undesirable.

On the other side of the coin, leaders are known for developing and growing personal relationships with their employees. Leaders smile as much as they can, and they genuinely care about what’s going on in the lives of their employees — all of which adds up to create a more welcoming and relaxed atmosphere at the office.


05. Bosses can be hard to get in touch with; leaders keep their doors open

Ever try to schedule a meeting with a boss to talk about something only to get the runaround? Bosses feel as though they’ve worked their whole lives to get to this point in their career. Many of them feel they’re above helping their lowly employees; that’s what the middle managers are for.

Leaders, on the other hand, always have their doors open. Not only is it easy for employees to approach them with any questions, concerns, or ideas they may have, but leaders also show initiative and schedule meetings with employees they suspect might need them. The end result? A more cohesive, connected team.


06. Bosses expect employees to get things done; leaders coach them


There’s no shortage of work needing to be tackled at any given organization. Bosses are great at making sure things get done: they assign a deadline and scowl at their staffs until tasks are completed. This isn’t the most efficient approach to work, however, particularly if employees aren’t exactly sure how to get things done but are afraid to ask their bosses for help. Under these kinds of regimes, work often has to be revised and revised again before it can be signed off on.

Understanding that their employees don’t have the same skills or experience as them, leaders take a more proactive approach with their employees, coaching them through assignments. In addition to reducing the likelihood they’ll have to lend as much of a hand in the future, leaders work to make sure projects are done right the first time.


07. Bosses tell team members what to do; leaders ask who should do what

Bosses believe they have it all figured out. Sure, they’ve hired great people, but at the end of the day, the buck stops solely at their desk. In this vein, bosses tell their employees what to do. They don’t care if anyone has any better ideas.

Leaders are smarter than that. They know their team is full of folks who have great ideas — and, because of their proximity to the tasks at hand, may very well know better ways to do certain things. So they ask who should do what, or who wants to do what, and they’re not embarrassed about it. They build consensus, and the team is that much stronger for it.


08. Bosses know what needs to be done; leaders get things done


With their MBAs in hand and their immaculate resumes in tow, bosses have all the credentials in the world to prove to you how awesome they are. They know the ins and outs of their industry, and they know exactly what needs to be done. Thing is, rather than actually do it, they command their team to do it. In some instances, it almost appears as though bosses don’t do anything at all.

Leaders, to the contrary, get things done. They understand that talk is cheap, so instead they let their actions speak louder than their words.


09. Bosses blame workers for problems; leaders fix problems

Why take responsibility when things go wrong if you don’t have to? Well, from a managerial perspective, because it’s the right thing to do. Bosses, however, are quick to blame their team members for dropping the ball. They don’t understand the shortsightedness of their behavior.

Rather than complaining about something that’s gone wrong and being mad about it, leaders work efficiently to rectify the situation. They understand that all workers are human, and as such, mistakes are bound to happen from time to time.


10. Bosses are separated from the group; leaders are immersed in it


Bosses wouldn’t dream of sitting in the same room as their employees. They need to have their own office because they’re so important. Similarly, bosses won’t ever be caught meeting their team members for a happy hour. They have more important people to mingle with.

Leaders, on the other hand, know that approach is silly. They become fully immersed in the exact environment as their employees. In some instances — like at Zappos — they even work at the exact same kind of desk in the exact same room. It’s true that leaders can’t become too chummy with their employees. But there’s no rule that says bosses need to be so cold.

So are you a boss, or are you a leader? If you’re the former, it’s time to reassess your approach to management. Your employees, their productivity, and your bottom line will thank you.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.  



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