If you look back on the arc of your life, you can likely pinpoint key people who pushed you to grow out of your comfort zone.
They gave you a vision of a better future, and they urged you to claim your place in it.
You’ve also likely experienced the pain, disappointment and frustration from others who used you to get ahead and kept you down along the way.
They stole the future for themselves, and they made sure you had no part in it.
Remember how you felt in those situations?
When it comes to being a boss vs. a leader, the difference often lies in how you make the people around you feel.
Bosses take power and keep people subdued. Leaders empower and elevate people to new heights.
Let me share some powerful lessons I’ve learned during my time serving in positions of leadership. They will help you identity bad boss tendencies and give you insight into how to transform them into important leadership strengths.
- In a Leadership IQ study, only 20% of participants reported that their bosses take an active role in helping employees grow and develop their full potential. Ouch.
- Bosses concern themselves primarily with work, while leaders concern themselves primarily with people.
- Lead by example. Walk where you want your employees to walk, so they’ll have footsteps to follow.
7 Differences Between a Boss and a Leader
Being a boss is not the same as being a leader.
“Boss” is a given title, but “leader” is an earned responsibility. And knowing the differences not only impact your business for the better but also — and more importantly — your employees’ lives.
To illustrate these differences in action, let’s review some important distinctions between the boss versus the leader.
1. Leaders Mentor, Bosses Manage
Bosses focus on task completion and daily operations. While these are necessary for running a successful business, they are low-level skills that comprise a small portion of the role.
Leaders go beyond mere task management to cultivating their employees’ potential. They listen to their people and take a strategic approach to personal and professional development.
Mentorship means you take time to ask people about their lives and engage with them meaningful, difficult questions. Rather than just talking about the to-do list, you ask “What’s on your mind?” and dive into what’s most important for them in that moment.
Bosses don’t mentor. They manage. Their focus is to get work out of you.
Leaders mentor AND manage. Their focus is to get the best out of you, including your work.
Tip: Schedule regular (at least monthly) one-on-one meetings with your team. Your goal in this setting is to ask great open-ended questions, listen attentively, and help them navigate their landscape so that: 1) roadblocks are eliminated, 2) goals are met and 3) they grow as a person in the process.
2. Leaders Inspire, Bosses Intimidate
Leaders also distinguish themselves from bosses in how they motivate employees. They inspire action by creating an empowering environment, whereas bosses often resort to intimidating demands based on power dynamics.
How exactly do leaders inspire employees to do better? Here are a few principles of motivation I keep in mind:
- Recognition and appreciation: “I Notice; You Matter” Every human on earth wants to be seen for what they are doing and told that what they are doing is valuable. Find ways to meaningfully recognize employees and team efforts and show your genuine appreciation.
- Clear goals: Leaders set the direction and pace. Give clear, achievable objectives and hold your team accountable to them.
- Feedback and communication: Candid feedback is a gift. Provide regular, constructive feedback and maintain open communication channels.
- Empowerment: Encourage autonomy and decision-making authority within defined boundaries.
- Inclusivity and belonging: People want a place to belong and a part to play. Tell them that and create an environment where that is a reality!
- Opportunities for growth: Great leaders make the people they influence better. Create and share opportunities for personal and professional development.
- Intrinsic rewards: The best motivators come from within. Tap into intrinsic motivations like purpose, passion and a sense of achievement.
- Well-being and work-life balance: Lead by example. Take vacations. Don’t work on weekends. Then promote a healthy work-life balance that follows what you already do yourself.
Leaders implement these principles to create a culture conducive to employees thriving and ready to do their absolute 110% best work.
Tip: Regularly acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of your team. You will never meet someone who is too encouraged! A simple thank-you note goes such a long way.
3. Leaders Show Empathy, Bosses Show Indifference
Empathy is the cornerstone of effective leadership. In my experience, employees who don’t care about their work don’t put forth effort — and it’s hard to get employees to care about their work if you don’t care about them.
Imagine an employee facing difficult personal challenges at home. A boss won’t inquire or offer support. Instead, they’ll hand down consequences for missed deadlines and only care about the work that needs to be done. The response is tone deaf and shortsighted.
In the same situation, a leader schedules a one-on-one, discovers why productivity dropped and shows empathy and support by adjusting the schedule where possible. This approach puts the employee first and takes a long view of their productivity and output.
Here are a few insights I’ve discovered that create a more empathetic workplace environment:
- Use active listening: Pay full attention when employees express themselves, ask open-ended questions that invite thoughtful responses and convey understanding by mirroring back their responses and labeling their feelings.
- Be approachable: Leadership is primarily responsibility, not reward. It’s best to have an open-door policy that encourages employees to come to you with their concerns without fear of retribution.
- Offer flexible work arrangements: Where appropriate, allow for flexible hours, remote work or reasonable accommodations based on employee needs.
- Celebrate milestones: Who doesn’t like to be told they’ve done a good job? Acknowledge and celebrate your employees’ personal and professional milestones, showing genuine interest in their lives and achievements.
- Create a safe environment: Before people will open up to you, they need to feel safe and secure around you. Let your team know that they can express themselves in appropriate ways without fear of judgment or discrimination.
Tip: Active listening is a skill that must be practiced. The goal is to listen to understand, not listen to respond. If you are already thinking of the answer while the other person is still talking, you’re not listening!
4. Leaders Listen, Bosses Tell
Shifting management styles from listening to telling is often the difference between sparking discovery or sparking frustration.
Leaders choose to listen. Bosses love to tell.
Take the following scenario: A project for an important client drags on because of unforeseen roadblocks.
- A leader schedules a meeting to discuss the team’s concerns and thoughts, which creates an environment of effective collaboration and new ideas. Everyone has the chance to voice their opinion and be heard.
- A boss relays new instructions for improvements without seeking any team input. This approach creates a hierarchical dynamic where employees may hesitate to provide feedback or ideas, stifling creativity. Over time, employees become resentful, bitter and look for employment elsewhere.
I try to remind myself that no matter how resolved I am in a decision, the collective intelligence of the team is greater. Sometimes, being humble and open to alternative views is the most persuasive and influential thing you can do.
Tip: Nobody likes unilateral decision-making. Even if you know the right decision to make, you need to take the steps to allow invested parties to share input AND make sure they feel heard. If they feel heard, they’ll still support you, even if you make a different decision than what they suggest.
5. Leaders Adapt, Bosses Resist Change
While everyone can take time to adjust to change, leaders are more willing and quicker adapt than bosses. This is another leadership characteristic where humility is so critical.
Leaders believe there’s always something new to learn or ways to be better, which makes change expected, reasonable and unintimidating.
Bosses feel their way is the best (or at least better than others). This makes change feel uncomfortable, unnecessary and threatening.
Change is a necessary part of progress, so it’s important to get comfortable with it. If you don’t understand the why or you have concerns about the changes being made, ask questions — but don’t shut them down.
Tip: In team meetings, actively make space for ideas that challenge the status quo. A culture that values change is a culture that is resilient in the face of adversity.
6. Leaders Are Accountable, Bosses Shift Blame
Leaders take responsibility for their shortcomings and work to grow. They even work hard to turn their critics into coaches.
Bosses fear falling short, so they resist accountability and instead shift blame.
This might look like blaming the messenger for bad news or throwing a team member under the bus when a project doesn’t meet stakeholder expectations.
While avoiding responsibility might feel safer and smarter in the moment, it can quickly erode your team’s trust in you and undermine your authority.
The result? Ineffective leadership that misses targets AND burns bridges.
Always aim to be a person of your word and keep your actions in line with your professed principles.
Because at the end of the day, integrity is the true north of leadership.
Tip: If your team member brings up a concern with you, follow through. Raise the concern to the appropriate person, conduct any necessary research and return to your team member with updates. Do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it!
7. Leaders Set an Example, Bosses Set Rules
Leaders lead by example. Bosses set rules that they themselves often don’t follow.
For example, if I’d like to set the expectation for my team to arrive at meetings on time, as a leader, I need to consistently show up a few minutes early to each meeting.
Not only does this build my integrity as a leader — and my employees’ trust — but it also encourages them to do the same without me even needing to speak.
In contrast, imagine if I consistently showed up a few minutes late to every meeting. What do you think my employees would think of me? How do you think they would act?
Walk where you want your employees to walk — that way, they have footsteps to follow.
Tip: Regularly request feedback from your team members on your leadership to help them see how to seek and receive feedback on their own.
Are You a Boss or a Leader?
It’s not always easy to see where you’re excelling at leadership and where you’re falling short. That’s why I encourage leaders to regularly ask those in their circle of influence for feedback.
It’s also important to self-reflect. Here are a few reflective questions you can use to dig deeper into your leadership style and eliminate boss management tendencies:
- Do you actively involve your team in decision-making processes, considering their insights and feedback?
- How do you handle mistakes or setbacks within your team? Do you assign blame or encourage a learning opportunity?
- Are you approachable and available to support and guide your team beyond just delegating tasks?
- Do you follow the expectations you have for your team yourself?
- Do you take the time to understand each team member’s strengths, weaknesses and aspirations? Do you align their role with their goals?
- Are you open to adapting your approach based on the needs and dynamics of your team and projects?
- Do you celebrate the achievements and contributions of your team openly, acknowledging their hard work and dedication?
- Are you mindful of how your actions and decisions impact your team’s morale and motivation?
- Are you receptive to innovative ideas and approaches from your team, even if they challenge the status quo?
- Are you invested in your team’s growth and development, providing opportunities for learning and advancement?
If you couple any employee feedback you receive with self-reflection and take action to grow, I’m confident you’ll replace your weak boss tendencies with powerful leadership strengths.
How to Become a Better Leader
Being a boss or leader isn’t a binary question. Like anything, leadership exists on a spectrum. This means it’s always possible to grow your leadership skills and abilities.
If you want to be a better leader, here are a few ideas that aid the process.
Practice Self-Awareness and Reflection
Being able to take a good look in the mirror can go a long way toward growing your leadership skills. After all, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.
The goal of journaling is simply to think about your life and write it down. It can be as quick or in-depth as you like, and its benefits are surprisingly large.
While you’re journaling, try not to fall into the trap of only writing your weaknesses. Be honest with yourself in the good and bad. Over time, you’ll discover patterns that you simply can’t ignore, and you’ll be motivated to do something about them.
It’s at this point that change begins to happen, and it all starts with frequent reflection.
Next Steps: Commit to journaling daily for one month and see what benefits it brings you.
Improve Your Communication Skills
Knowing how to communicate effectively can be the difference between inspiring action or facing indifference. That’s why good leaders dedicate time to learning and practicing this skill.
To make your communication more effective, strive for:
- Timeliness: Communicate when it matters. Untimely communication is poor communication.
- Simplicity: The point of communication is being understood, not being admired. Don’t use more complicated words than you need to. Be clear and concise.
- Authenticity: Be genuine and authentic in your communication to build trust and credibility.
- Effective listening: Be an active listener and encourage others to express their thoughts and concerns.
- Respect: Treat others’ opinions and ideas with respect, even if they differ from your own.
Next Steps: Ask a teammate to give you an honest assessment of how you communicate. Receive their feedback (however difficult it might be to hear), thank them and commit to doing something about it.
Take Control of Your Schedule
Does this sound familiar? You wake up at 8 a.m., stressed, facing a to-do list a mile long and unsure of which task to tackle to feel caught up and back in the driver’s seat.
If so, you’re not alone!
The reality: leading a team is tough. And if I’m being honest, sometimes it’s quite stressful!
Daily time blocking is how I stay in control of my day rather than have my day control me. By scheduling tasks, you are saying “Yes” and “No” to how you’ll spend your time in advance — which can curb the sensation of stress and overwhelm.
While it’s not a magic bullet to never feeling stressed again, it definitely helps — and sometimes, it opens your eyes to how you can adjust your schedule to reclaim time back in your week.
Next Steps: Commit to time blocking your schedule for three weeks and discover how it can reduce stress in your life.
Be the Example for Your Team
Showing is much more powerful than telling. That’s why I always try to model the behaviors and values I want to see in my team.
The goal here is not perfection but consistency. It’s to act with integrity and be the change you want to see the overwhelming majority of the time.
Next Steps: Choose a behavior or value you’d like to see your team improve in. Reflect on how you already do it well, plus how you can improve in it yourself.
As you reflect on your own skills and behaviors, improve your communication, master your schedule and lead yourself first, I know you’ll ditch the boss mentality and grow into the strong leader you want to be.
To becoming better leaders together,