Leader vs. Boss – The 6 Major Differences
“Remember the difference between a boss and a leader; a boss says “Go!”- a leader says “Let’s go!” – E.M. Kelly
The above quote is just one of many highlighting the differences between a boss and a leader. The terms can often be used interchangeably, but if you start analyzing what makes a boss and a leader, you’ll start noticing differences.
In today’s competitive world, being a leader rather than a boss can boost a team’s performance and guarantee success for the organization. But considering how often people mix these terms, it’s important to study the divergence of the core elements that make a person either a boss or a leader.
In the below sections, we’ll look into the definition of a boss and leader; what it is that makes and determines your role. Before concluding, we’ll present the six major differences between the two roles in areas such as approach to work and the communication styles.
DEFINITION OF A BOSS
Boss is a word that tends to evoke negative responses. When we describe someone as ‘bossy’, we generally don’t imply the person is behaving extremely positively. While we might consider ‘boss’ to be a more negative word, what does the actual definition of the word state? The Oxford Dictionary defines the noun as “a person who is in charge of a worker or organization”.
Therefore, being a boss is a specific status and the person will hold a higher position to the people he or she is in charge of in the organization. In a way, being a boss refers to a specific position of power and whether you like it or not, a boss will have power over his or her subordinates because of this role.
The word should also be examined through the lens of the verb ‘to boss’, as it can help define the differences between a leader and a boss more clearly. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the verb is informally defined as to act to “give (someone orders in a domineering manner”. A boss, through his position of power, tells the subordinates what to do and expects the subordinates to act accordingly. A boss gives orders and supervises people, making sure the people he or she is in charge of will do the job as required.
Essentially the defining features of the word ‘boss’ are direct. The word is defined by clarity and power. Being a boss is a position requiring the ability to provide instructions and orders, ensuring people do the things the boss tells them to do. Bosses don’t ask or prefer certain actions, they expect and they tell what needs to be done. If you strip down the role of a boss into its most basic form, the position is all about supervision. A boss is required to tell the subordinates what is needed and to ensure the needs are adequately met.
DEFINITION OF A LEADER
A leader, on the other hand, is a word, which gets a more positive response from people. We tend to say things like “he was a natural leader” or “she was a great and accomplished leader”. The association with the word is more positive and the word is often used only in the context of people we revere or look up to.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the noun as, “a person who leads or commands a group, organization, or a country”. The difference to a boss is not necessarily apparent in the word. After all, a leader is also in a commanding role and has the ability to tell others what to do. But when you examine the verb from which the word is derived from, you can see the subtle differences at play. The verb ‘to lead’ is defined as an act to “show (someone or something) the way to a destination by going in front of or beside them”. Unlike a boss, a leader is thought to be someone who advices the subordinates and who doesn’t just bark orders, but actually does the acts he or she is waiting others to do.
A leader is never just a person who instructs and uses power provided by the position. He or she will guide and support the employee to reach the required end objective. A leader will tell, and more importantly show the direction and be a part of the journey to get to the destination. While the focus is still on getting the required jobs done, the emphasis with a leader is not solely in the result but also on the process.
Therefore, compared to the essence of a boss’ job, a leader is not there to tell what needs to be done. A leader must show what the job ahead is and be of guidance during the tasks. In a way, a leader’s role is more motivational rather than supervisory. With the guidance and support, a leader becomes the foundation of keeping the subordinates motivated to follow the path.
WHAT ARE THE KEY DIFFERENCE AREAS?
By examining the definitions of the words, you’ll already be able to notice the intricacies at play. While at the outset the two words can seem rather similar and interchangeable, the closer examination highlights differences that give both roles a different meaning.
So, what are the key areas separating bosses from leaders? The major differences between the two can be divided into six core areas of the focus, the driving force, the approach to work and objectives, the source of their authority, the communication and delegation style, and their accountability.
Difference #1: The focus
When it comes to an organization, the key consideration is often the focus of the organization. What is it for and why? The underlying focus is what drives an organization, but also the individual to perform the required tasks. The focus gives direction and largely determines the approach to work. So, what is the focus for the two?
For a boss the end objective is profit. A boss is in a role, which is about guaranteeing the organization the best financial results that’ll help guarantee the continuation of the business. That’s behind the boss’ interest in supervising things getting done. The boss is not interested in how the subordinates get from Point A to Point B because the result is all that matters. If you are able to achieve the goals and do it in an efficient manner, then the boss is happy as this guarantees the organization enjoys a profit. The orientation of the boss is about achieving the goals, often because a boss might be accountable to others, just as the subordinates are to him or her. If the boss fails to get his or her subordinates to achieve tasks and provide financial results, then his or her position might be in danger. In short, a boss is interested more about the outcome not the process.
On the other hand, a leader is focused on changing people and the organization. The ideal situation for a leader is to achieve change, a transformation of the organization being A to being B. For the leader, the objective is always about achieving the vision he or she has set for the specific company. The vision is always transformative and creating better financial results is never an end, but rather something that might occur in the process. Leader is interested in helping the subordinates grow as employees and as people. Instead of placing attention on the outcome, the leader will be more interested in the process and the people behind it.
Difference #2: The driving force
The different focus and orientation of the boss and the leader are also evident when you examine the driving force behind their actions. What makes a boss or a leader work hard and perform to the best of his or her abilities? How does each of them guarantee the subordinates are doing what they are told to do?
For the boss, the motivation stems from the focus on standards. These standards are often determined by the their ability to enhance productivity and profitability within the organization. An organization might use Process A because it has evidence this helps maintain high-levels of productivity and therefore, bring the organization the most profit. The boss is interested in finding the best standards and then maintaining their appropriate implementation. The supervisory role means the boss is extremely careful in ensuring the subordinates hold onto the set standards in their performance.
The leader is driven by the values they hold dear. The leader will have a vision, which is mainly driven by the values and principles of the leader. As mentioned above, these are not money-driven objectives, but often deal with the kind of business values the leader would like to see implemented. The leader’s vision could be about sustainability or customer service, and these values will be the motivation for the leader’s action. The way a leader leads is determined largely by his or her personal values that have become tangible with the business. Again, the leader is not interested in what processes might be used to perform the tasks, as long as the subordinates keep the values as part of the job.
Furthermore, a boss differs from a leader in the way they hope to motivate the team. The boss’ attempt to control and to motivate the workforce is about rewards and punishments. More often than not, the tendency is to focus on the punishment side, with the subordinates being closely monitored to ensure they don’t do things outside of the standards provided. For a boss, the worst thing the subordinate can do is to stop following the processes, as this could mean productivity and profit are not obtained. Therefore, there is a level of intimidation to ensure the subordinate will follow the procedures.
Leader’s approach to motivating the workforce is rather different. The leader emphasizes inspiration as a motivational tool. The leader wants the subordinates to feel driven by the same vision guiding his or her actions, making the vision something everyone in the team is hoping to achieve. A leader can use different inspiration tactics, but often the rewards are at the core together with personal growth plans. A leader wants to offer something positive to the subordinate – an opportunity for the person to grow because of buying-in on the vision. Instead of threatening and intimidating the subordinate to action, a leader wants to provide a challenge and to offer positive rewards as part of the deal.
Difference #3: The approach to work and objectives
Leaders and bosses also have a different approach to working and setting objectives. The approach stems from the contrasting views in regards of what drives them and where the focus lies.
A boss approaches work in an administrative fashion. As mentioned earlier, the boss could be described as a supervisor, as his or her approach is about informing the subordinates about the task at hand, directing them about how the task should be done and monitoring the subordinates to ensure the end objectives are achieved. The boss takes a dominating approach to work, expecting the subordinates to follow his or her instructions as strictly as possible. A boss would have outlined a plan and accepted certain processes, which he or she will anticipate the subordinates to follow.
The rigid approach to work does mean the boss needs to be highly qualified to set objectives. Being a boss doesn’t mean you need to be the toughest or the meanest to bully people into submission. A good boss has set out the practices because he or she has the knowledge to understand it is the best method. Information is crucial to being a boss and the subordinates are expected to perform tasks as told, because the boss should know the best.
A boss can, of course, be wrong, but the emphasis is on the boss knowing why things work. A subordinate is not therefore presumed to provide any insight into the tasks or help set the objectives. Furthermore, the boss doesn’t show or guide during the process. The instructions are meant to be so clear and the subordinates properly qualified in order to guarantee the proper implementation. The boss will provide the tools and the resources, but won’t typically participate in the process other than in a supervisory role.
The approach is rather different with a leader. A leader approaches the work through innovation and collaboration. Since change is the driving force and the vision is the focus of the leader, the approach is to transform and shake things around. It is not about creating the most efficient routines and sticking with the processes that have been proven to work the best. The premise is to find new ways to do things and find new, equally beneficial, routes to the objectives.
Therefore, the leader is not there to tell the subordinates how a task should be performed. Instead, the leader might ask the subordinate to be part of coming up with a new idea. This doesn’t necessarily mean the leader wouldn’t be the only person to set the objectives, but rather the leader is not fully aware of the processes. The leader will show how things might be done, instead of stating his or her way is to proven method to use.
A leader will support and show, challenging the subordinates to be as immersed in the work as he or she is. The process is much more collaborative and the processes aren’t as rigid. The leader will be hands-on with the work. In essence, the leader approaches work as an opportunity to teach and to empower the subordinates. Each task and project is thought to be a way to boost the knowledge and traits of the workforce, not just a process to obtain goals. It is always about the bigger picture, not the objectives at hand. The talk below by Tom Peters is a good example of the importance of leaders setting the example:
Difference #4: The source of authority
One of the core elements bosses and leaders share is the fact they both have authority. Authority, which is defined as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience”, is key to any position of power, but the two roles differ in how they achieve this right and the ways they continue to hold on to it.
The boss gets his or her authority from the position. It is the spot in the hierarchy of the workplace providing authority. In essence, a boss is an authority figure because of a title. Anyone higher in the so-called workplace hierarchy can be a boss. Therefore, anyone getting into a position of hierarchy, where other employees have less authority or power, will become a boss. The authority comes from external sources, such as the title and the position, not in any real capability or the boss’ inner ability to influence the subordinates.
It doesn’t mean the boss won’t be qualified for the position; just that his or her ability to influence is not why he or she is in the position. The boss might be the most qualified person for the technicalities of the role, but not necessarily the best at leading. Generally, it is about seniority, being higher in the seniority ranking within the organization. The authority is also not reinforced or provided to the boss by the subordinates. The subordinates take directions because it is the job’s role to tell them what to do – it doesn’t necessarily mean they enjoy the authority, but they accept it since the work hierarchy gives the boss the power. A boss will also maintain this hierarchy and it will be inevitable in the workplace – the boss is on top and the subordinates are treated differently because they aren’t equal.
On the other hand, a leader receives his or her authority from an internal place. In fact, a title doesn’t make anyone a leader and you can show leadership even if you are lower in the workplace hierarchy. A leader has authority over subordinates because the subordinates hand it to him or her. They do this because they believe in the leader’s ability to take charge and change things around. In essence, a leader can get authority because they are able to communicate their vision and inspire others to follow. You could view it through an example of a politician, who is elected because the message resonates with the voters.
A leader’s authority is often something requiring reinforcement and real evidence. In order to maintain his or her authority, the leader has to provide results and continue to motivate the subordinates. If the subordinates lose trust in the leader, he or she will most likely have to find a new way to communicate or leave. The leader will have authority, but this authority is not emphasized or used to create an unequal work environment. In fact, the leader will treat the subordinates equally, not based on any title or position. His or her own authority of power doesn’t put him or her in a special position within the team.
Authority might not seem as important to a leader than to a boss, but you can’t perform in either of these roles without clear authority. To understand the importance of authority in leadership, the YouTube video below explains well, why influential leaders can’t influence without authority.
Difference #5: The way to communicate and delegate
Another big area where the behavior is different is the ways leaders and bosses communicate and delegate. Communication can have a positive or a negative impact on teamwork, with the person in power holding an important role in ensuring the communication enhances teamwork rather than diminishes it. So, what is the difference when a boss communicates and when a leader does it?
As the definition of a boss described, the communication style is often commanding and telling in nature. A boss will tell the subordinates and since the approach to work emphasized administrative qualities, the communication is often one-sided. The subordinate is not expected to be an active participant in a discussion, as the boss doesn’t emphasize the need to conversation. The nature of communication is built on directions, with the subordinates being able to ask clarifying questions or arising possible problems in their ability to achieve the tasks. Ultimately, the boss’ communication is about getting the message across – what the objective is and how to get there – and not learning or listening to what the subordinate has to say.
Furthermore, a boss uses communication as a way to delegate tasks and responsibilities among his or her subordinates. The approach by a boss is task focused and the boss is in charge of the decision who does what. The nature of being a boss is increasingly about the ability to delegate the tasks in a manner that helps boost productivity and profitability, i.e. ensuring the best people are performing the tasks. In it’s essence, the communication style of a boss is based on delegation and telling. The boss will provide subordinates with responsibility, but will keep hold of the overall reins during the projects. The authority will always remain in the hands of the boss.
A leader’s style to communicate is much more participatory, no matter how much power in decision making the leader has. A leader will be interested in the opinion of the subordinate and generally, focuses on ensuring communication is based on discussion. Collaboration and feedback are typically the building blocks of a leader’s communication style. A good leader should focus on emotional intelligence and the ability to not only to speak, but also to listen what the subordinate is saying. Since the focus on leadership is to change things, the communication is often more about inspiring the subordinates and leading by example. A leader doesn’t tell, “Do this”, but focuses more on showing how things could or should be performed.
In terms of delegation, leaders are not only delegating responsibility, but also authority to a varying degree. A leader might give guidance on the overall objective, but allow the subordinate to figure out his or her own way to achieve it. Therefore, there is delegation in the leader’s communication as well, but it tends to be a rather more in-depth form of delegation and not just a provision of tasks to do. Whereas, a boss delegates responsibility to subordinates, a leader hands out authority. Leader doesn’t feel the need to control everything, but is comfortable in giving away power to his or her subordinates.
Difference #6: The level of accountability
Finally, accountability is a core area where leaders differ from bosses. The condition of responsibility, together with the way the two roles share accountability in the group, indicates the major differences in being a boss and being a leader.
As mentioned above, a boss delegates responsibility and therefore, places accountability on the shoulders of the person performing the specific tasks. Because the accountability is shared, the subordinates might take the blame for when things go wrong. The rigid procedures and emphasis on standards can mean the boss finds it easy to find the person at fault. Essentially anyone who doesn’t follow the exact orders from the boss can be accused of failing the project. For a boss, there isn’t any point of self-reflection, during which he or she would analyze whether the subordinates were perfectly equipped to perform the tasks. If there is a failure, it is because someone didn’t follow the procedures in the correct manner laid out by the boss. In terms of failure, a boss tends to focus on finding the person or mechanic at fault. The emphasis is on having someone accountable for the failure, not so much the understanding of what went wrong.
Interestingly, a boss doesn’t share accountability as much when it comes to success. While failure is blamed on the inability to follow the rules, success is down to the implementation of great procedures. The focus is on the procedures, not necessarily the subordinates who followed them. The idea is that anyone could follow the rules as long as the procedures are efficient. Therefore, when success takes place, the boss has succeeded in creating the perfect procedures.
But for a leader, the full accountability is on the leader’s shoulders. While the leader will share responsibilities and decision-making with the subordinates, the leader is ultimately responsible for any failures. Failures in the project are always an opportunity for a leader and his or her team to learn. In terms of the leader, he or she will focus on examining whether something could have been done better. Did he or she provide enough support? What was the underlying reason for failure? These are self-reflective questions, which the leader wants to analyze.
Furthermore, the leader wants to find solutions to fix the failures instead of blaming the subordinates. The ethos of learning from mistakes is at the heart of the leader’s strategy. Accountability for a leader means admitting mistakes, but not dwelling on them. Perhaps most importantly, a leader is not afraid of being told how he or she can improve. As mentioned earlier, a leader will self-reflect and listen to criticism rather than just give it.
In addition, a leader will share success with the team instead of thinking it was all down to him or her. A leader understands the whole team must work efficiently and everyone is an important part of the team – success isn’t achieved by a single person, but through teamwork.
While a boss and a leader can seem similar titles of a person in power, when you start examining the definitions and roles deeper, you’ll notice differences. Being a boss is essentially about gaining a specific position in an organisation and the objective of a boss is to achieve goals with efficiency. Being a leader is not as much about holding a certain position, as it is about creating a vision and gaining the respect and trust of the subordinates. While leaders need to gain the trust of subordinates and ensure they are inspired to follow him or her, a boss simply uses his authority of being in a powerful position and gets subordinates on board through fear or intimidation.
It’s also important to note a boss and a leader diverge on the approach they take on achieving success. The boss is not interested in changing the status quo, which means the emphasis is on following procedure and creating an administrative way of leading. On the other hand, a leader is constantly looking at how things can be improved and changed.
Therefore, the leader’s role is to empower subordinates and help them grow as well. For a boss, this doesn’t matter, as the current methods and processes are sufficient to receive results. A leader will need more ambition and the tools to ensure the subordinates are inspired and motivated to think big. The difference, therefore, is largely psychological; the vision through which they see the world.
Essentially, someone in the position of a boss can be a leader as well by focusing on the above elements. In the end, the difference is about the approach you take on treating your subordinates and the objectives you set for yourself – do you want to lead others and change things for the better or are you happy to just direct and command?