The Differences Between a Boss and a Leader

Published: Aug 10, 2016

 Workplace Issues       
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As you make your way up the career ladder, you will come across choices that will impact your standing with employers, but as you obtain positions of authority, you will also come across one major choice that will impact your standing with employees – should I be a boss or a leader? There is a difference.

Three months ago, I put out a request on LinkedIn asking the public to share their experiences with authority figures at their place of employment.  Their answers highlighted the key dissimilarities in character traits that separate bosses from leaders. Here are their main takeaways from what distinguishes the importance of a leader from that of a boss: 

A Boss Criticizes; A Leader Teaches:
DC wrote me about her experience with a boss who constantly criticized her reports: “I had always written reports to help the previous supervisor explain our mission and strategies to key stakeholders. The new supervisor hated my reports and would repeatedly send them back and demand edits. No matter how many times I asked, she would never provide any constructive criticism. I don’t mind being criticized, but I can’t do my job properly if I’m not sure what is expected. Rather than help me, she decided to hire a freelancer specifically to work on the reports.  It was demoralizing.”

DC was definitely dealing with a boss who would rather criticize than teach. I will explain my experience with a leader at my first job with the Bronx Times Reporter. I’ve always been considered wordy and my boss found it difficult to edit my articles so that they fit into the space he provided in the paper. One day, he called me into the production room and taught me how he laid out the paper. I learned about how many lines of copy equaled an inch in the paper; how he determined what articles would jump to another page; and everything about how articles, headlines and photos all fit together. By the time we were done, all he had to do was say, “Jon, I need a 16-inch story on the drug bust up North” and I could write the story and edit it down to make sure it fit. I always appreciated that lesson because it taught me more than just what my boss was looking for; it showed me what it meant to be explained something rather than criticized to no avail.

A Boss is Exclusive; a Leader is Inclusive:
JV explained to me how she shared a special relationship with her boss. “I did all her work. My boss didn’t know how to follow-up after meetings, so she would bring me to every meeting and make sure I took detailed notes. I would type them up and then remind her whenever she had to follow-up. She called it ‘managing up.’ And it made me almost bulletproof at work. That may seem like a good thing, but it created tensions with my co-workers. During meetings, she would openly criticize everything my colleague worked on in front of staff and she would never say a thing to me about my work. She waited until the meeting was over before speaking to me about her concerns. It made me uncomfortable.”

CW shared a starkly different story that highlighted a leader at her previous place of employment. “There was a guy brought in to head our outreach unit. I didn’t work for him, but I often worked with him on assignments. The one thing that stood out to me was how well he treated his team; holding birthday parties for his staff; sending around get well cards when someone was sick – I would joke that I wished I worked for him. But he actually treated everyone he worked with that way. Once, I worked with him and his team on an event that was very successful and he brought bagels, donuts and coffee to thank us. And he always made time to pop in when he visited with his team just to see how everything was going.  Our own supervisor didn’t do that and neither did the main supervisor. It made us all feel like one team and we respected him for that.”

A Boss Intimidates: A Leader Inspires:
MB explains what he considered a strange occurrence involving an event meant to motivate staff. “We were unveiling our new mission statement at an event where employees were encouraged to ask questions and voice their concerns. At the end of the event, our boss got up and addressed the crowd stating that he knew some people have certain job descriptions and that others might feel they cannot learn the new technologies we would be using, going forward, but that he felt we were all there because we cared about the company’s growth and not just to make money. And then he added, ‘and if you aren’t here because you care about the company and the people we serve, perhaps you should be looking for another job.’ It was said in a calm, friendly manner, which made it all the more scary. Instead of galvanizing people behind the new mission statement; he created an environment of fear.”

MB also shared a contrasting moment from early in his career that he felt propelled him to the executive position he enjoys today. “I was working for a company that put all its eggs into one basket in the form of an uber-manager who eventually left the company. No one knew the company like he did and there was a genuine fear that everything would fall apart without him. The president pulled us into a meeting and acknowledged how difficult it would be moving forward. They were going to hire someone from outside to replace our former supervisor, but in a move that surprised us, he called me and two other employees forward. We had worked there the longest, but we were all fairly young, so we were surprised when he gave us all promotions, raises and a structure of bonuses for different goals. He told us he believed in our ability to help move the company forward and let the rest of the staff know that their hard work would not go unnoticed. We were all inspired to help.”

A Boss Blames Others; a Leader Takes the Blame:
CR discussed a moment she said has stuck with her for years. “My boss created a very loose work environment that we all enjoyed. We would tease each other and share personal stories. It genuinely felt like we were a family. And our boss would take part, making fun of someone’s weight gain or fashion decisions; actions that would have been frowned upon by anyone who didn’t realize how we all interacted with one another. But then, one day, two members of the staff took it too far and what we incorrectly believed was good-natured teasing, turned into a loud argument everyone heard. It was embarrassing and it was all my boss’ fault for creating such a culture. But rather than take the blame for creating such an environment and assuring our main supervisor that these actions would no longer be tolerated, the incident was treated as a singular moment and my boss threatened to fire both staff members, as a result. Needless to say, the office culture quickly changed.”

I didn’t receive any instances where a leader took the blame, so I will share my own lesson. In a previous place of employment, when something did not go according to plan, I was called into the office to discuss why. And I was always honest, explaining that I assigned the task to a member of my staff and how I had felt they did the job well, which was true. My supervisor pulled me aside and told me that I was basically throwing my staff under the bus. I didn’t understand that logic, when I felt I was defending their work. I actually spoke to my wife about it and she agreed with my boss and explained that it didn’t matter that I felt my staff did a good job; my supervisor felt different and, while I delegated the tasks, the buck stopped with me. If my staff failed in a project, I failed the project and needed to do a better job explaining what the company wanted. In the future, whenever there was a problem with a task, I would ask questions to understand the problem, apologize that the work did not meet their standards and assure my supervisor that it would no longer be an issue moving forward. Then I would discuss with my staff how to make sure we met the company’s expectations in the future.

Those are four differences that stood out the most among professionals I spoke with.  Leaders are also:

  • People-oriented
  • Trusting of their staff
  • Mutually respectful for everyone, from the janitor to the VP, and
  • Never afraid to roll up their sleeves and pitch in to achieve a goal.

So, what do you want to be?

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