The Difference Between a Boss & a Leader, According to BambooHR

Most companies have bosses, but only some have leaders. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are several differences between a boss and a leader. Just because someone has a management position, a nice office, or the authority to make decisions for the company doesn’t mean they are a leader. 

Bosses Command and Control

The management strategy of a boss usually revolves around command and control. They are often rigid supervisors with a top-down way of doing things. In short, a boss tends to focus on themselves. Bosses care about their own power, their image, and how they are obeyed. They often manage employees with intimidation and fear.

It doesn’t sound like the type of person most people would want to work for, does it? 

Leaders Build Teams

In contrast, a leader focuses on the team. They care about the opinions, well-being, and growth of others. They work hard to make their employees feel valued and like they contribute. Leaders care about teamwork and progress and manage employees with a coaching mentality.

Every organization would rather have leaders who retain top talent, cultivate employee growth, and contribute to the company’s success. And every employee would rather willingly follow a leader than be pushed by a boss. In fact, bosses can ultimately drive employees to leave, especially when they exhibit some of the worst manager behaviors.  

Fortunately, bosses can become leaders. An important step is understanding and working to improve on characteristics that differentiate the two.

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Leaders Inspire

A boss usually has an authoritative, top-down management style. Therefore, they often declare or command how things will be done. A leader inspires others instead. He or she will take input from co-workers and present a compelling vision people are eager to support because they can see their own contributions to it. 

Leaders Encourage

Bosses tend to point out mistakes or failures and criticize others. The worst bosses scold employees in public, or even threaten them. Leaders encourage and reward employees for achievements. You could say leaders are experts in positive reinforcement and coaching. When advice or constructive criticism is needed, leaders will offer it in a private setting. And in the cases where disciplinary action is required, leaders approach it as a learning experience for employees. 

Leaders take advantage of regular one-on-one meetings to provide a healthy environment for offering encouragement and guidance and use best practices in giving employee feedback.

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Leaders Are Open

One powerful leadership quality is transparency. Bosses usually hoard information, only doling bits and pieces out on a “need-to-know” basis or only to those they deem worthy. They see information as power, and will, therefore, keep it to themselves. 

Leaders are transparent and open. They have an honest management style, share the information they have, and open it up for discussion. Leaders understand that they don’t have the answers and that others can have new perspectives, ideas, and solutions. This helps people feel valued and important to the team. 

A transparent culture will help leaders and employees shine. Here’s how to get started on creating transparency in the workplace.

Leaders Listen

Interactions with a boss typically involve the boss dominating the conversation while employees listen. Then bosses expect employees to carry out their commands, often with either little or no direction, or with micromanagement behavior.

This dynamic is flipped with leaders, who listen more than they talk. Leaders care about the opinions and ideas of others and encourage them to share their thoughts without fear of judgment or criticism. They understand the value of incorporating the opinions of others into decisions. Listening also allows leaders to recognize patterns or needs and provide the necessary support to help their teams. 

Leaders Work Alongside Employees

You can often tell a boss from a leader when major projects or initiatives come along. Bosses tend to stand aside and supervise others doing the work, while leaders roll up their sleeves and work alongside their teams. Seeing a leader as invested as employees helps foster unity and inspires others to do their best work. 

Leaders Embrace Responsibility

Leaders aren’t afraid to take responsibility. Bosses blame others when expected results don’t happen. They are also more likely to take credit for the work of others when things go right. Leaders are different. They take responsibility when things go wrong and give their team recognition for good results. They own their mistakes and give credit where credit is due.

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Leaders Are Forward Thinking 

Bosses are generally focused on the present or the short-term. Leaders keep the future in mind while making decisions, hiring talent, and planning strategies. However, they are still able to produce results today.

Leaders Don’t Use Fear

While bosses use fear and intimidation to keep employees in line, leaders understand that’s not the way to approach employees. A leader will inspire with trust, empathy, and staying positive at work. Leaders have learned to motivate through enthusiasm and vision, rather than using fear and/or punishment.

Leaders Solve Problems

Without realizing it, bosses can cause problems for their teams, making it harder for people to accomplish tasks and goals. Leaders look for ways to remove obstacles so others can succeed. They make themselves available to solve problems and encourage team members to come to them for help.

When someone gains position and authority in the workplace, it’s easy to become “the boss.” It takes more effort and self-awareness to become a leader instead. Identifying and fostering the traits of an effective leader makes for a better, more fulfilling work environment for all—and often more success for the company as well.

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