You’ve probably heard the words “boss” and “leader” used interchangeably throughout your work life and, to most people, they probably mean much the same. In reality, that’s not actually true.
When you started your business, you immediately became the boss. After all, it’s your company. But whether or not you became a leader on the same day is an entirely different story.
As you build your team and aim for bigger and better goals, understanding the key differences between a leader vs boss is important for making sure that your employees get what they need to thrive in their roles. In fact, studies have shown that nearly 50 percent of workers in the US have left a job at some point due to a bad manager or supervisor.
How you lead really does matter when it comes to retaining your best team members and increasing your company’s bottom line. By focusing more on effective leadership than simply “being in charge,” you’re setting yourself up for greater success in creating a happier work environment for everyone.
We’re here to show you how easy it can be to start making the shift from a boss to leader mindset right now.
What Is the Difference between a Boss and a Leader?
You’ve made it to the top of the corporate pyramid after years of hard work and you’re finally the one in control. But how do you move from boss to a true leader in your business?
We can think about the different characteristics of a leader vs boss in three distinct groups:
- Approach to Others
- View of Self
The way that you develop your leadership skills in each of these areas is crucial in helping you to avoid becoming a bad boss and, instead, blossom into a great leader for different employees across your organization.
Let’s break down each of these differences in detail.
- A boss will: Treat communication more like a broadcast and dish out one-sided directions, feedback, and reprimands.
- A leader will: Prioritize clear communication and decisiveness while recognizing that conversations and exchanges are multi-sided. They’ll open the floor for employees to share feedback, questions, and input.
Leaders Clearly Outline Expectations
We all know that bad communication impacts everyone and can ultimately lead to disastrous consequences. When it comes to what you expect from your team, clearly laying out goals with measurable action steps along the way is best for ensuring that you’re all heading in the same direction.
Understandably, employees will struggle to perform if they don’t know what they’re working toward. Highlighting the big picture will help your team see why their work is so important. Meanwhile, clear objectives, action items, and metrics give them a roadmap and also make it easier for all of you to monitor your progress and course correct when necessary.
If issues come up, a good leader will help the team to reassess instead of panicking and looking for quick fixes. They’ll provide clear instructions for how to turn the ship around, delegate tasks to individual employees, and give supervisors support when their team might be struggling.
A Boss Commands but a Leader Listens
Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, “We have two ears and one tongue so that we listen more and talk less,” and this couldn’t be more true in the business world. Unfortunately, it’s often quite difficult to find people who truly listen.
While a boss focuses on what needs to be accomplished and gives orders to their employees that they expect them to obey, effective leaders take the time to open a two-way dialogue. Just like with outlining clear expectations, leaders should always be open to hearing the views of people around them, at all levels of the organization.
Leaders understand that taking the opinions of others into the decision-making process is valuable. They’ve invested time and money in building a diverse workplace, full of people from different backgrounds and approaches. Listening to their thoughts at key moments gives them a fresh perspective and often leads to opportunities to innovate more creatively across the team.
2. Approach to Others
- A boss will: See it as their sole responsibility to ensure that team members are doing what they should be doing exactly when they should be doing it. They’re the one in charge.
- A leader will: Give team members the necessary trust, autonomy, guidance, and support to complete their work well. It’s their duty to inspire the team and rally them around the bigger vision—not micromanage them.
Leaders Work to Influence and Inspire Others
No one wants a supervisor who hangs over their shoulder every minute of the day. A recent survey found that 79 percent of workers had experienced micromanagement, with 85 percent reporting that their morale was negatively impacted as a result. If you haven’t realized that your constant checking-up on people or throwing in a new opinion at every part of the project is affecting your team’s well-being, consider this your wake-up call.
Trusting your employees to make the right decisions without you is a big part of becoming a better leader. Your role is to inspire and empower them, rather than tell them exactly what to do.
While you can certainly still take on a mentor or coach type role, great leaders leave room for employees to find their own way and grow their own individual skills with minimal guidance. This helps them identify their own paths and find their confidence in pursuing them, without always feeling like they need someone higher-up to back them up and lead them.
Providing your staff with learning resources to help advance their careers is one of the best ways that you can have an influential role in the progression of each individual who works for you. Businesses who emphasize this kind of development typically see 30-50 percent increases in employee retention, as employees are eager to stick with companies that invest in helping them learn and advance in their careers. Not only will you have happier team members, but you’re also helping to collectively grow the skill sets needed throughout the company to ensure future organizational success.
Effective Leaders Provide Helpful Feedback
One of the best approaches to help your employees grow and develop is by providing constructive feedback or constructive criticism. The most helpful feedback is:
- Delivered regularly and frequently, rather than overwhelming an employee with a pile of feedback all at once
- Offered in a way that’s tailored to the employee (for example, one team member might prefer in-person feedback while another does better with written comments)
- Specific and backed up by calling attention to certain situations and supporting examples
- Focused on potential solutions, next steps, and development opportunities, rather than only the problem
Being reprimanded for an error can often leave people feeling discouraged and embarrassed. In the worst situations, they could even be fearful of losing their job.
If your leadership style has typically been focused around negative behavior, it’s time to reframe your mindset. Remember, we’re all human, which means that we all make mistakes. Take the time to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of your team members so that you can provide them with guidance where necessary.
Use those mess ups as a learning opportunity, both for them in their day-to-day work and you—where could you have better supported them? How could the outcome have been different with additional resources? This is where you need to practice your listening skills, alongside giving your employee actionable steps that they can take for future projects.
3. View of Self
- A boss will: See themselves in a position of undeniable authority and power, while simultaneously absolving themselves of responsibility and pointing a finger at others when things go wrong.
- A leader will: Understand that the performance of the entire team is a direct reflection of the manager’s capabilities, and then take accountability accordingly.
Strong Leaders Have Self Accountability
No one likes to admit when they’ve made a mistake, but part of being a good leader is taking accountability for your actions, or even the actions of those below you. Yes, it could be very easy for you to point the finger at someone else, especially if it was their fault. But instead of being quick to blame others, a leader understands that they represent everyone within the business and so any mistake is their own.
The fact that they don’t accept credit and shift blame makes these leaders far more trustworthy in the eyes of their employees and reinforces that leaders are on the same team as their employees—even if they’re higher up the org chart.
While both bosses and leaders are of course motivated to see the company succeed, leaders will always put their team above themselves. It’s not about power or glory, or absolving yourself of responsibility when the going gets tough. Your job as a leader is to take the hits when they come in, to protect the rest of your employees where necessary, and sometimes deal with the more difficult situations that come up.
Leaders Lead from a Place of Purpose, Not Fear
It’s high time that we scrap the saying, “It’s better to be feared than respected.” It doesn’t work well in everyday life, and it certainly doesn’t in the modern world of work. When your employees don’t trust and respect you because they’re afraid of you, you’ll soon see morale and productivity dropping and team members leaving.
Fear often comes from a lack of confidence. But even if you have to deal with some imposter syndrome and put on a brave face for a few months, you’ll soon find that the more you believe in yourself, the more your team will believe in you. Being the head of a company can feel daunting at first, but remember why you’re investing the effort to be a more effective and strong leader.
Focus on Leadership Development across All Levels
As your company grows, you’ll likely put a structure in place that includes managers and supervisors of different teams. Understanding their leadership style is just as important as developing your own. When 84 percent of Americans say that poorly trained managers create unnecessary work and stress for them, it’s worth taking those extra steps when you’re hiring or promoting people into leadership positions.
The best leaders influence those around them, so as you strive to become a better leader yourself, you also have the opportunity to bring on the next generation of leaders within your business. Adjust your company practices and structures to make some of these leadership characteristics a key focus. Check in with your team to ask how you can become the leader that they need.
We guarantee that your hard work will pay off and you’ll quickly transform from an average boss to an exceptional leader.