Boss vs leader. If you think these two terms are synonymous, it’s more than likely you’ve been taught to do things the wrong way and/or don’t understand the true definition of leadership.

Anybody can be a “boss.” However, without solid leadership skills, it’s near impossible to effectively manage a team with any level of success. It doesn’t matter what industry you work in or what circumstances are involved in running the business.

Boss vs. leader

The Business Dictionary defines leadership as:

  • The ability to establish a clear vision.
  • The ability to establish that vision with others so that they will follow willingly.
  • The ability to provide the information, knowledge and methods to realize that vision.
  • The ability to coordinate the conflicting interests of all employees and stakeholders.

There will always be one universally-accepted reality in every business: Nobody likes working for a bad manager. Whether “bad” is defined as entirely inept, grouchy, over-bearing, narcissistic, or something completely different that keeps managers from connecting with staff and leading them happily toward the company’s goals.

Boss or leader?

1. Do you inspire or intimidate your employees?

Leaders are known for their ability to truly inspire their employees and make them want to do challenging tasks in order to provide value to their team and the company. When you attempt to lead by intimidation, this is actually a sign of weakness.

Respect has to be earned and a “boss” who tries to take the intimidation shortcut by asserting power and control, rather than making employees feel like they have a choice and are needed to achieve various outcomes never can really call themselves a leader.

2. Do you hover or educate as needed?

A leader often enjoys the luxury of sitting back and completing their own task while their staff goes off and completes projects, brainstorms, and solves problems on their own, with only occasional input needed from management. This instills not just confidence, but a sense of ownership in their work, and predictable and continuous improvements in efficiencies and product quality.

A “boss” rarely has anytime to get anything done because they’re too busy micromanaging employees. Consequently, employees find it hard to make any progress on even the simplest of projects because of the constant interruptions and feeling like the boss is going to jump down their throat any minute.

3. Do you listen passively or actively?

Leaders know that their employees can make or break the company and halt the achievement of its goals. They listen carefully when given feedback, positive or negative, and act on what they’re told – either to fix what’s broken or to push through initiatives that can make processes better, and employees happier.

A “boss” thinks an employee should keep their head to the ground and get things done. The boss feels they’re in charge of what the employee does or doesn’t do, and if those employees have a problem, they have the option to move on to greener pastures. They might pretend to listen, but couldn’t care less. Most important ideas and concerns go unheard and unrequited.

4. Do you bark orders or ask with an explanation?

Many of us have seen popular military films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and the epic Saving Private Ryan. While these movies glorify military leaders screaming orders at their soldiers with reckless abandon, Brian Stann, former UFC middleweight and decorated leader (Infantry Officer) of the heroic 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines during the recent war in Iraq, cautions that whether a team is taught to follow without argument or not; “If they don’t know the why, they won’t do it.”

Stann warns that this problem becomes even more likely the more there is on the line with a mission or project. Obviously, explaining things to your employees in a way that they can rationalize and respect will always give more favorable results than the “Just do it and shut up” mentality that most bosses like to employ.

5. Do you blame employees when things don’t go right or realize the burden always falls on you?

Leaders know they’re responsible for their employee’s outcomes. When money is wasted, or clients are lost due to faulty work or service, it’s their job to spot it before it becomes a problem. If they don’t, it’s their fault just as much as the employees.

Former Seal Team Three Unit Commander, Jocko Willink, who works as a leadership consultant for dozens of Fortune 500 companies, recommends one of the best signs of a leader comes when upper management asks what’s wrong or “What do you need to do your job better?” Willink insists his answer to such questions was always “We’re good.”

The leader is responsible to get their team what they need and will never make excuses about how their team failed – that burden falls on the leader. A boss will always complain about their team’s shortcomings and blame incompetence or other things that were lacking for their failures.

This infographic can sum it all up very nicely:

Boss vs. leader - infographic
via Officevibe / Flickr

How did you fare: Are you a “boss” or a leader?

If you’re a “boss” do you disagree with the statements made above?

If you’re a leader, did you have to make the shift from a “boss” early on?

This article is brought to you by Alvernia Univeresity’s online MBA.