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The terms “boss” and “leader” are often used interchangeably. However, the practical implications of the differences between what it means to be a boss vs. a leader are vast. Every organization has at least one boss. But not all have leaders.
Just the word “leader” tends to evoke a more positive reaction in most of us than the word “boss”. We think of leaders as dependable and trustworthy; people we can look up to and learn from. When we think of a boss, most of us simply think about someone we have to answer to if we want to keep our job.
Here are a few other key differences:
- A boss views himself as separate from his charges rather than on the same team. He is the boss and they are the employees. His job is to tell people what to do. Their job is to do it. Leaders view themselves as fulfilling their role as a part of the team. The boss says, “Go do this.” The leader says, “Let’s do this.”
- A boss uses fear to motivate employees to do what he wants them to do. Leaders strive to inspire.
- When something goes wrong, a boss looks for someone to blame. A leader looks at understanding what really went wrong, invoking solutions and implementing preventative measures that will keep everyone from making the same mistake twice.
- A boss views employees as a necessary evil – something she must deal with in order to accomplish day-to-day activities. A leader recognizes that leading her team is a privilege. She enjoys working with people to accomplish goals.
While examining the differences between bosses and leaders as if they are on complete opposite sides of the spectrum is useful for discussion, in reality, most people in authoritative roles are some mixture of both. Sometimes we inspire our employees and sometimes we drive them to do what we need them to do. Sometimes we rely on the respect and honor we’ve earned to motivate action and sometimes we invoke our authority. Sometimes we say “we”, and sometimes we say “I”. Sometimes we ask, and sometimes we order.
That’s fine. An argument could certainly be made that the greatest success comes from balancing both roles. But, what if you suspect that your day-to-day interactions with your team resemble typical boss behavior a lot more often than good leadership?
Here are a few suggestions to balance out the scales:
- Cultivate a genuine appreciation for people. The people who work for you are individuals with unique personalities, backgrounds, talents and challenges. They are the way they are for a reason. Be conscious about trying to understand who they are and recognizing what they actually need in order to succeed. Learn to appreciate their strengths. Most of us can sense when someone doesn’t like, appreciate or value us, and are unlikely to go the extra mile for that person.
- Learn to control less and delegate High performance teams exist in an environment of individual responsibility and autonomy. Bosses micromanage. Leaders understand that if they want their team to accomplish great things, it’s up to them to provide structure and support rather than control.
- Embrace and encourage change. Bosses tend to like things to stay the same. They are rigid and want things done the way they’ve always been done. Leaders listen to new ideas and encourage team member to innovate and improve systems, processes and products wherever they can. Be alert to the times when you view change as a threat and try to shift your perception towards perceiving change as an ally or an opportunity.
- Cultivate trust. Bosses tend to not be as concerned about the interests of their employees as they are about their own. Leaders understand that their team is likely to be more engaged in their job and work harder when they trust those they work for. Hold yourself accountable to doing what you say you will do, living your values and taking the time to cultivate your own character.
- Give credit where credit is due and accept blame when things don’t go as planned. Bosses take credit for the success of their team and point the finger when something goes wrong. Leaders address challenges and poor performance head on, but are more focused on setting goals, creating forward action and managing change than placing blame. They showcase their team’s effort when they succeed and accept that they have some personal responsibility when their team fails. Look for ways to improve your ability to give the kind of feedback that has a positive impact – in good situations as well as unpleasant ones.
A leader can also be a boss, but not every boss is a leader. While there are certainly times when the appropriate action is to be bossy, in general, cultivating good leadership produces more lasting, positive results. In a lot of ways, developing our leadership skills can be viewed as an act of kindness and service because the result is less stress and higher levels of fulfillment for ourselves and those we are trusted to lead.