Bosses and leaders are vital in any organization, whether small or large. But what’s the difference between a boss vs. a leader?
As someone who has built and run businesses from start-up to over $500M annual revenue and assembled teams across six continents, I have had the pleasure of gaining an international perspective on the makings of a boss vs. a leader.
I’ve also worked with other leaders and bosses to hear and learn from them. The differences in these roles stand out and can affect your organization’s bottom line, culture, and team morale for better or worse.
Look at Elon Musk, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in history, who is both a boss and a leader. Every day he focuses on goals for improvement. His goals are centered around him uniting his team to make his ideas a reality effectively.
Mother Teresa’s perspective was not to waste her time with the anti-crowds but to be proactive and lead the change she wanted to see in the world. She served the people while leading them to safety and peace. She was a prime servant and transformational leader.
The dissimilarity between a boss and a leader can be challenging to spot, but it matters – and matters more than many realize. This article will explain the 28 differences between a boss vs. a leader.
Boss vs. Leader – What Are the Differences?
Below are 28 notable differences between a boss and a leader that can help you differentiate the two:
1. Leaders Have High EQ; Bosses Don’t
Strong Leaders have a high emotional quotient, whereas bosses often lack it. Leaders have empathy for their team members and tend to be more open-minded. They are good at understanding people’s feelings and needs, which makes them better able to create a positive atmosphere and organizational success, both during hard times as well as good times.
On the other hand, bosses are subject matter experts (or claim to be) with the technical knowledge required to do the job they are managing.
2. Leaders Value Self Accountability; Bosses Don’t
True Leaders take on full self-accountability for their actions and encourage those on their team to do the same, whereas bosses tend to blame others. Leaders realize they are responsible for the team’s success and will accept many mistakes made as part of their own doing. Bosses, however, are tasked with holding members of their team accountable.
3. Leaders Democratize Power; Bosses Centralize It
Leaders give their teams the power to make decisions and take action. They are open to others’ ideas and opinions while providing guidance and direction. Conversely, bosses are more likely to centralize power and make decisions without consulting anyone else. They maintain order and control, so they tend to make decisions independently from those that report to them.
4. Leaders Influence; Bosses Command
Leaders are naturally persuasive and strive to influence their team members. They understand that people respond better when they feel motivated, valued, and appreciated.
On the other hand, bosses often order team members to do something without necessarily considering the feelings and motivations of those involved and often without explaining how the task will help the company reach it’s desired outcomes. Instead, bosses rely on their positional power to help them make a difference and remain “important”.
5. Leaders Are Learners; Bosses Exhibit the Know-it-All Attitude
Leaders are lifelong learners and strive to stay up-to-date with the latest trends. They understand that knowledge is power and are eager to learn new things. Leadership training is a regular part of life. Most leaders, especially servant leaders, know they can often learn things from anyone regardless of experience or positional authority.
Bad bosses, however, often take on a know-it-all attitude and believe they already have all the answers. They’ll talk over those that report to them with differing opinions or ideas. They often maintain a “this is how it’s always been done” or “just trust me attitude”. Unfortunately, it can result in a culture of stagnation and reduce the team’s motivation to grow.
6. Leaders Value Long-term Solutions; Bosses Run Behind Short-term Fixes
Leaders understand the importance of long-term solutions and strive to create plans that will have a lasting impact. They focus on more than immediate results but are also interested in ensuring that their team can continue to be successful in the future in the medium term and long term.
Bosses often want to take the quickest route to the here-and-now success. As a result, they are ineffective leaders who rely on short-term fixes to get the job done and often underachieve those looking for process improvements or innovative solutions.
7. Leaders Are Unbiased; Bosses are Partisan
Leaders strive to remain impartial and unbiased while assessing situations. They can look at a problem from all sides before making a decision.
Conversely, bosses often take a partisan approach and favor certain team members over others. So it is no surprise that bosses tend to create an environment of distrust and resentment among team members.
8. Leaders Listen; Bosses Don’t
Leaders are people experts with excellent listening skills that value the opinions of their team members. They understand that everyone’s input is valuable, and they strive to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable speaking up. Leaders know that they can better respond to their team by listening to what is really be asked and then helping them understand the direction and choices the leader wishes to take.
Bosses often don’t listen to their team members and focus more on getting their ideas across. They’ll sometimes treat everyone as VAs (viritual assistants) regardless of position. The leadership style of bosses usually causes team members to feel unheard and unappreciated.
9. Leaders Incorporate Feedback; Bosses Don’t
Leaders understand the importance of incorporating feedback and using it to improve their team’s performance. They are open-minded and willing to make changes based on team members’ input. They sometimes thrive on receiving constructive criticism of their own performance.
Bosses look at every mistake to punish those responsible instead of using it as an opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, this often results in an atmosphere of fear and discouragement among team members.
10. Leaders Empathize; Bosses Regard It as Weakness
Leaders are great communicators and understand the importance of empathizing with team members. They consider how their decisions will affect others and strive to make decisions that are in the best interest of their team.
Bosses often view empathy and understanding as a sign of weakness and don’t consider the feelings of those they are leading. They think that to be a good role model and maintain the chain of command that you cannot share your own issues with your direct reports.
11. Leaders Empower Their People; Bosses Use Fear, Authority, and Insecurity To Control
Leaders strive to promote a culture of empowerment among their team members. They know that an empowered team is more likely to take the initiative and perform better than one controlled by fear and insecurity. This sometimes looks like a coaching leadership style.
Bosses use their authority to control people instead of encouraging them to take action and make decisions on their own. They use fear as a tactic to get people to comply and don’t promote a culture of creativity and innovation. They may use the term leader but their management style clearly demonstrates “do what I say or go somewhere else”.
12. Leaders Value People; Bosses Relentlessly Focus on Material Things and Output
Leaders know the importance of people and prioritize their team members’ well-being above anything else. They recognize that an organization’s success depends on its people and strive to create an environment that fosters growth, development, and collaboration.
Bosses are often obsessed with results and material things and forget that people are the ones who drive success. Even when reading management books, they’re sometimes really looking for how to get more control over employees.
13. Leaders Focus on Strengths; Bosses Focus on Weaknesses
Leaders are great at recognizing their team members’ strengths and using them to the organization’s advantage. They understand that everyone has different talents and strive to ensure everyone is playing to their strengths. They’ll delegate responsibilities to help the organization reach a common goal but will also do so, even if taking longer, to help someone build on early leadership characteristics or reach their professional goals.
Bosses are bad leaders that often focus on weaknesses instead of strengths and don’t take the time to understand and nurture a team member’s natural gifts. They’ll sometimes make unreasonable demands and claim there are skill gaps.
14. Leaders Inspire; Bosses Demand Compliance
Leaders inspire their team members to strive for greatness and help them understand that success is achievable. They use positive reinforcement and provide guidance when needed. Love them or hate them, the writings of Tony Robbins and Peter Drucker inspire people to try harder and accomplish more than they ever thought was possible.
Bosses focus more on compliance and pushing people to do things without giving them the necessary tools or resources. Bosses who function this way usually have an unmotivated workforce with low morale and high employee turnover. They’ll bring up their formal title from time to time as a matter of psychology to remind people they are the team leader.
15. Leaders Collaborate; Bosses Manage by Fear
Leaders understand the importance of effective communication skills and strive to create a culture where everyone feels comfortable working together. They focus on fostering relationships between team members and encouraging them to share ideas and opinions.
Bosses often manage by fear and don’t take the time to create an environment of trust and collaboration.
16. Leaders Show Respect; Bosses Contradict and Criticize
Leaders are aware of the importance of respect and strive to invent an environment where everyone gets treated with dignity, and they acknowledge the difference in people. They encourage healthy debates and discussions. Healthy conflict is good, and they’ll help the team lean into it to avoid unhealthy conflict later. Leaders even work and put in extra time to ensure their team members feel respected and valued. Bosses often contradict and criticize their team members instead of showing respect and appreciation for their work.
17. Leaders Are Visionaries; Bosses Distract and Don’t Follow-through
Leaders have a keen vision for the future and strive to create an environment where everyone can thrive. They are great at setting realistic common goals and helping their team members understand the importance of reaching them.
Bosses, on the other hand, often get distracted and don’t follow through on their plans. It can lead to a deficiency of clarity and focus within the team.
18. Leaders Are Solutions Focused; Bosses Are Problem Focused
Leaders understand the importance of solutions and strive to develop creative solutions that are both effective and efficient. They take the time to explore different options and make sure that the team agrees on the final decision. Bosses focus more on problems than solutions and don’t take the time to understand the bigger picture.
19. Leaders Are Bold With Controlled Risks; Bosses Are Cautious With Risks
Team leaders know that in order to innovate and grow, they need to take risks. They are bold when taking risks but always ensure they stay within the organization’s risk parameters. Bosses are often cautious when taking risks and don’t take the time to evaluate the potential benefits.
20. Leaders Are Open-Minded & Creative; Bosses Are Unimaginative & Risk-averse
Leaders are open-minded and strive to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas. They are great at encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and helping their team members explore different possibilities. A leader delegates authority to exercise trust within the team, especially among knowledge workers.
Bosses, however, can often be uninspiring and risk-averse, making it difficult for their team members to be creative and innovative.
21. Leaders Constantly Evolve & Iterate; Bosses Are Inflexible
Leaders operate in the notion of constantly evolving and iterating their strategies. They take the time to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t and make changes when necessary. Bosses operate in inflexibility and don’t take the time to adjust their plans when needed. Instead, they rely on outdated methods that don’t consider the changing needs of their team or the environment.
22. Leaders Get Things Done; Bosses Are About Themselves and Their Position
Leaders understand the importance of getting things done and strive to create an environment where everyone focuses on their progress and how it affects the company’s desired outcomes. They are great at delegating tasks and empowering their team members to take ownership of their work.
Bosses concentrate more on themselves and their position than on getting things done. Sometimes their words will be “other” and “company” focused, but their actions will paint a different picture of their true attention. It disrupts the atmosphere creating a lack of accountability and, ultimately, a low level of productivity.
23. Leaders Have Mission Statements; Bosses Don’t
Leaders know the importance of having a mission statement and strive to create an environment where everyone aligns with its values. They take the time to ensure that their team members understand the company’s mission and ensure everyone is held accountable for living up to its standards. They will often have mission statements for the team and themselves, as well as their families,
Bosses don’t have a clear mission statement and fail to ensure everyone is on the same page.
24. Leaders Engender Loyalty; Bosses Demand Obedience
Leaders constantly work on building loyalty among their team members and strive to create an environment where everyone feels appreciated. They are great at recognizing achievements and showing gratitude for a job well done. While they will acknowledge and lift up those that overperform, leaders are thankful for the daily work and meeting expectations too. Bosses tend to demand obedience from their team members and fail to create an environment of where people feel good about accomplishing their assigned work and never want to go above and beyond.
25. Leaders Value Personal Space & Different Approaches; Bosses Micromanage
Leaders know the importance of providing their team members with personal space and allowing them to approach tasks differently. They are great at giving everyone the freedom they need to be successful in their accomplishment of goals. Bosses often micromanage and use corrective action on their team members for doing things differently, even if the results are better. Bosses do not give them the space they need to be successful or find ways to improve processes.
26. Leaders Are Ever Present; Bosses Are Unapproachable
Leaders focus on being ever-present and strive to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable coming to them with questions or concerns. They are great at providing support and guidance to their team members when they need it. Bosses can often be unapproachable and don’t take the time to provide their team members with the support they need.
27. Leaders Make People Feel Good About Themselves and Their Work; Bosses Don’t
Leaders know the importance of making their team members feel good about themselves and their work. They take the time to recognize individual achievements and provide meaningful, constructive feedback that helps their team members grow and develop.
Bosses don’t take the time to do this, creating an environment where team members feel undervalued, unmotivated, and stuck.
28. Leaders Recognize Potential; Bosses Don’t Care
Leaders understand the importance of recognizing the potential in their team members and strive to create an environment where everyone can reach their full potential. They are great at spotting talent and helping it reach its fullest potential. Leaders accomplish this by recommending training and introducing them to the right people. Everyone has value and can contribute. Leaders believe it is up to them to help unlock that potential if the person wants to grow.
Bosses are ineffective leaders that don’t take the time to recognize the potential in their team members, creating an environment where potential wastes away.
How To Become a Leader?
Now that you understand the 28 differences of a boss versus leader, let’s look at how to become a leader. While some naturally possess the qualities of a leader or were taught these early in life, developing these skills and attributes is an ongoing process.
Here are tips to help you become the leader your team needs:
Develop and Emphasize the Power of Listening
A great leader listens more than they speak. Being an active listener means comprehending the person’s point of view and responding with understanding and empathy. It does not require agreeing with them or their position, but it does require understanding what they are saying and the reasons underlying those statements. It requires giving the person your undivided attention and showing that you understand their perspective.
Be Unbiased (Avoid the “Yes-Man” Syndrome)
Every leadership role requires making difficult decisions. As a servant leader, you need to make impartial and unbiased decisions for the good of the team. It means you aren’t always agreeing with the majority to please them. You may be friends with your coworkers, and that is possible because you are the same transparent person in the office as outside, and they can trust you to do what is right in both relationships. You know that your choices must be for the benefit of all in the long run.
Share Power, Build a Team
Good leaders focus on empowering and motivating their team as a whole. Instead of focusing on individual success, they strive to build a collaborative environment where team members can rely on each other and grow to have more skills tomorrow. It helps to create a more vital team dynamic and sets up the team for success today and next year.
Be Open-Minded & Creative; Take Controlled Risks
Creativity and innovation are effective leadership skills to have. You must be open to new ideas, testing different approaches, and taking calculated risks. Not every risk will be successful, but if you constantly experiment and try new things, you’ll eventually come up with something that works. Leaders know how to guide the team away from unbound risks towards those that are good experiments to find growth.
Focus on Solutions, Not Just Problems
Leadership isn’t about pointing out problems and stopping there. A great leader focuses on finding solutions to the problem (the real problem), no matter how difficult it may seem. It requires a positive attitude and the ability to think outside of the box. It also means being willing to take feedback from your team and use it to come up with the best solution.
I’ve found some of the most innovative approaches and results from my teams have come from being tasked with things that seemed impossible with our current resources. This is literally the scenario that led to us redesigning how Microsoft Flight Simulator X was developed, how our small team at Vitrue created social media management, and multiple other hypergrowth teams I’ve been lucky enough to be on…and learn from.
Have Strong Opinions But Hold Them Held Loosely
Leaders don’t always have the answers. They know when to challenge their own ideas and when to be flexible and open-minded. Good leaders will change their minds as new information or feedback comes in. They don’t cling to their opinions blindly and are willing to adjust their point of view if it better serves the team.
It takes strong leadership to ensure the team can take a step back and analyze the situation more clearly, in order to make an informed and practical decision.
Constantly Evolve and Learn New Things
Leadership isn’t a static role. It’s more of a verb than a noun. It requires constant learning and evolution to keep up with the changing environment. Make sure to stay informed of new trends and technologies, as well as any changes in your industry and even other industries. It will help you move ahead of the curve and provide invaluable insights to your team.
Inspire Your Team and Constantly Reinforce Your Vision
Leadership isn’t just about giving orders. It also means inspiring your team and constantly reinforcing your shared vision and the desired outcomes. Make sure to communicate clearly and often. The entire team needs to know not just the outcomes the company is striving for but also how their pieces help lead to reaching those goals (or not reaching them).
It will ensure that the entire team is on the same page and understands how their actions contribute to the bigger picture. Effectively doing this will help your team stay motivated and on track to achieving your shared goals.
Strive for Truth & Grace
Leadership isn’t about being harsh or domineering. Instead, it requires balancing truth and grace. It means being honest with your team members without sacrificing kindness and respect. Showing grace doesn’t mean overlooking mistakes or not holding people accountable; it means showing understanding, even in difficult situations.
Your team needs to hear the truth (true expectations, true status of things, true reviews), but they also need the grace to fail. “Truth without grace = mean. Grace without truth = meaningless. Truth with grace = meaningful.”
Work as a Team, Not as a Hierarchy
Leadership is a team effort. Rather than relying solely on the leader’s decisions, successful teams work together to achieve their objectives. Each team member contributes their own unique skills, knowledge, and experience to the table. It creates a collaborative environment where everyone can work together to achieve success.
There times when the leader may need to get into the weeds to help share the yoke of someone on the team, to understand the real processes going on, or to simply see that additional resources may be needed.
Pursue Servant Leadership
Finally, remember that leadership isn’t about power or control. The best leaders are those who serve and support their team members. This means focusing on helping them grow and develop rather than simply issuing orders.
It also means stepping back and allowing others to take the lead when necessary. As this happens, the overall performance of your team will improve. You’ll be able to create something truly remarkable together. What is servant leadership, read this article.
Invitation to Learn More About Servant Leadership
If you want to learn more about servant leadership and how to become a better leader, check out my articles for more tips and insight. I believe that leading with intention, grace, and truth helps create strong teams that can achieve amazing things, and I’ve seen it first-hand across dozens of countries in multiple industries.
Remember, Perfect Is the Enemy of Done
Leaders must work quickly and efficiently to stay on top of their teams. However, they also need to be aware that perfectionism can be detrimental. It’s essential to recognize that sometimes, “good enough” is better than perfect and strive to get things done rather than waiting until they’re perfect.
A.K.A., get stuff done. Creating a tsunami of innovation comes from speed and iterating on the previous version. It’s easy to lose sight of the goal in the weeds and obsess over details. But if you can manage time, resources, and progress, it will take you farther than any level of perfectionism ever could.
Be Frugal, Not Cheap
Leaders should be frugal, not cheap. Frugality is a virtue that allows leaders to maximize resources and prioritize spending while still taking care of team members. Leaders should evaluate every decision’s cost and benefit and ensure they’re not cutting corners. It ensures that resources are invested in the most critical areas and not wasted on unnecessary expenses.
Cheap is penny wise but pound foolish. We want to avoid that mindset at all costs. Wise leaders invest in great people and great tech to scale outcomes. We look for ways to improve efficiency and lower costs without sacrificing quality. And we know you get what you pay for at the end of the day.
I believe it is a high priority to instill this mentality into every member of the team. It allows my team leaders to make wise decisions, and it has provided for hundreds if not thousands of valuable conversations (and sometimes new spending) suggested by individual contributors that have let us find growth opportunities that would have been missed.
Have a Bias Toward Action
Finally, leaders should always have a bias toward action. They need to focus on taking small steps to move projects forward instead of getting stuck in the details or a small bottleneck. It’s important to be decisive and take action, even if it means making mistakes. Making decisions and taking wise risks can help you learn, grow, and ultimately lead to better results.
Leaders are motivated and willing to go out of their way to figure things out and present solutions rather than problems. They don’t procrastinate or wait for someone else to make the first move. Good leaders anticipate opportunities, identify risks, and act on their convictions. They know that taking action is often more valuable than merely talking about it.
Summary of a Boss vs. a Leader
These are just a few differences between a boss vs. a leader. As you can see, leadership is much more than giving orders and managing resources. It’s about inspiring, motivating, and leading a team to success while focusing on doing what’s best to achieve company-wide success.
Servant leaders are transformational leaders that focus on creating an environment where their team members can contribute and grow. Bosses have many negative traits that may seem to benefit the organization in the short term but generally cause bigger problems long term. The servant leadership style recognizes the importance of serving and supporting their teams.
By understanding and embracing these 28 differences between a boss vs. a leader, you’ll be well on your way to becoming an effective leader.
Below are frequent inquiries about the differences between a boss vs. a leader.
How to know if you’re a leader or a boss?
The most significant difference between leaders and bosses is how they approach their teams. Leaders strive to create an environment of collaboration and career growth, while bosses focus on control and efficiency. Leaders focus on inspiring, while bosses concentrate on getting things done. Going back and asking those that worked for you at past companies will provide helpful insights on if you are a boss or a leader.
Can you be a boss and a leader at the same time?
Yes in terms of title/position/rank, no in terms of implementation and how you seek to achieve growth. You can be in charge and a leader at the same time. You can be a manager and a leader at the same time. While being a boss and a leader have some similarities, the way and reasons that they lead/manage/direct the team are different. With that said, I’ve had about a dozen people across my 30 years of employing people where they found calling me or anyone on the team “boss” was a term of endearment. I’ve also found the opposite. :)
Are bosses and managers the same?
No, bosses and managers are not the same. A manager is someone appointed to oversee a particular task, process, or team. They may be responsible for the day-to-day operations of an organization or project. A boss, on the other hand, is a leader appointed to lead a team and that does so in specific ways.
What are the similarities and differences between leaders and bosses?
The primary similarity between leaders and bosses is that they focus on achieving goals and objectives. However, the key difference is in their mindsets and their actions. Leaders focus on the bigger picture. Bosses focus on the here and now and how it impacts themselves. Leaders inspire their teams to reach their goals, while bosses set expectations and demand results.
Why be a leader and not a boss?
Leaders see the best in others. They focus on creating a healthy work environment that benefits everyone that thrives on collaboration and growth. Bosses thrive on exercising control over their team members. Leaders inspire their teams to reach their goals, while bosses set expectations and demand results. The most significant benefit of choosing not to be a boss and choosing to be a leader is allowing individuals to develop relationships and foster a sense of purpose and accountability while achieving the same or better results.
What are the disadvantages of being a boss?
The primary disadvantage of being a boss is the lack of connection with one’s team and lower outcomes for the company. When you are a boss, your focus is on meeting quotas and employee efficiency rather than building relationships and creating an environment of innovation where there could be additional growth. Additionally, bosses often struggle to instill a sense of purpose in their team, which can lead to low morale and a lack of motivation.
Where did the term boss come from?
The term boss comes from the Dutch word baas, which means “master” or “owner.” It was first utilized in the U.S. in the early 19th century to refer to a person in charge of a business or organization. The term has since come to signify any individual who holds a position of authority or power.
When did boss become slang?
The term boss became slang in the early 20th century to refer to someone admired and respected. It can now also be used as an adjective to describe something impressive or high-quality.
Is boss a title?
Yes, the boss can be an official title, more so at smaller companies. The term refers to someone who holds a position of authority or power in an organization. It can also describe someone admired or respected, such as a successful entrepreneur or businessperson. In many cases, a boss is a manager, director, or supervisor.
Can introverts be bosses?
Yes, introverts can be bosses. While introverts may not be as outgoing or outspoken as extroverts, they can still be effective leaders. Introverts can listen carefully and think strategically about how to achieve objectives. Additionally, their quieter personalities help create an environment where employees feel heard and respected.