Are you a Boss? Or a Leader?

June 25, 2015


Leadership. It’s a complex, intangible topic that has captivated minds for millennia, and it’s no less relevant in today’s connected workplace. What is it that leaders offer us to allow us to grow our careers and contribute to the organizations for which we work? And what is it about “Bosses” that often sap our desire to go above our job descriptions, that make us feel small, insignificant, like we’re spinning our wheels in place? In short, what’s the difference between a Boss and a Leader? If you’re reporting to someone, you come to know pretty quickly. But if you are in a leadership role yourself, how can you know whether your reports see you as a Boss to be feared, appeased, and avoided as convenient, or a leader who contributes meaningfully to the team you represent? 

If you have a few years of career experience under your belt, it’s very likely (unless you’re very lucky) that you’ve encountered someone who lives and breathes the “Boss” mentality. Someone who has earned an amount of authority and has carved out their own personal fiefdom of which they consider themselves the king or queen. They enforce arbitrary rules and standards on those who enter their domain. When you encounter one of these bosses, you realize pretty quickly that it’s usually best to leave them to their small little world, because they’ll usually never leave it themselves.

So if you’re in a managerial or leadership position, how do you avoid entering “Boss” status and achieve the kind of leadership style that earns your reports’ respect, and that also happens to drive better business outcomes?

Here’s a graphic that gets shared on LinkedIn all the time:

I have my own feelings about the oversharing of memes on LinkedIn (seriously, how many fourth grade math problems do we need to see in a given day?). But this graphic carries a solid message about what drives successful leadership. It conveys the idea that a leader isn’t an overseer, but is a participant in the effort at hand, a crucial individual who guides the process but isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty and engage – someone who isn’t above doing the actual work that needs to be done. When you’re an active participant in every stage of the business process, it means that you’ll have to be truly accountable for any failures of your team, instead of insulating yourself from them. This is one major distinction between “Bosses” and “Leaders.”

Taking the approach of active participation also means that you’ll have to be truly invested in your reports’ growth. It means taking pride in their successes rather than worrying that they’re one step away from biting you in the back and taking your role. And it means, almost paradoxically, working for your team rather than seeing them as working for you.

The concept of so-called “Servant leadership” goes back to ancient times. In the Tao te Ching, Lau Tzu wrote: “The highest type of leader is one of whose existence the people are barely aware,” and later: “The sage is scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘we ourselves have achieved it.”

So it’s a very old idea that a leader is one who allows their reports to take ownership over the process, someone whose highest priority is mentorship and development rather than personal glory. It’s a solid ideal, but in modern business, this can be hard to put into practice when your career is on the line. But it’s an ideal worth pursuing: If your reports see you as a leader, rather than a boss, they will be more motivated and it will lead to better business outcomes. It will make your own career more rewarding and personally satisfying. And it’s worth it for its own sake: mentorship and watching employees grow beyond where I’ve imagined them is, in my experience, one of the most satisfying parts of business.

So to summarize, what sets a leader apart from a boss?

  • Rather than being fiercely protective of their own territory and authority, a leader encourages the development of those around them.
  • A good leader delegates, and isn’t afraid to share credit for a team’s successes.
  • A leader participates, and this means taking accountability for failure instead of blaming failures on subordinates.

The development of good leadership practice is a career-long process. But with this post, we hope to start a dialogue: What’s your perspective? What’s the difference between a mere boss and a leader, and how can you identify and cultivate good leadership tendencies in yourself? How can you benchmark your own performance as a leader? And tell us stories of great leadership you’ve worked with in your career! logo_icon

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