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Boss versus leader: Develop the skills to bring out the best of both
There are countless jokes about bad bosses — and no wonder. Almost every person in the workforce today can tell stories about a boss that made their lives miserable. Unfortunately, the labor market is full of horrible bosses (in fact, they even made a movie about it).
Because of that, bosses have a bad PR issue. Just the word is enough to conjure up images of an intimidating, overbearing, inflexible micromanager. The fear around bosses isn’t entirely undeserved. Very few people have the impact on your well-being, happiness, and career growth that a boss does. A manager can cause post-workplace stress disorder, or they can be an insulating factor against employee burnout.
Bosses (and managers, for that matter) aren’t inherently bad. Not only do they have a profound influence on their teams, but they bring necessary skills to the workplace. Too often, the people we call “leaders” are a step removed from their employees. Granted, they have much better optics (who doesn’t want to be seen as a leader?). But they can also feel inaccessible — the proverbial “sage on a stage.”
Pitting “boss vs. leader” is a false dichotomy. In reality, these aren’t titles, but mindsets — and you need both for a healthy organization. Keep reading to distinguish between these mindsets and learn how to bring the benefits of both to your team.
What is the key difference between a boss and a leader?
In practice, the distinction between a boss and a leader is often positional. Often, leaders are responsible for creating a vision and strategy for the organization. They’re not as involved in day-to-day tasks or project management.
Bosses (which we use somewhat interchangeably with managers here) are task and project-oriented. They’re responsible for carrying out a leader’s vision and executing strategy. Whereas a leader asks “why” something should be done, a boss is more concerned with “how.”
This distinction between “boss and leader” sparks a lot of debate in modern organizations. And the fact that we’re interested in distinguishing the two reflects — and reveals — a lot about the shift in workplace culture. The 20th century codified a hierarchical, command and control form of management.
Today’s workplaces are shifting to a more distributed form of leadership and agile management. The pace of work is getting faster, priorities are more fluid, and change is a constant in a digital global world. The inherent uncertainty of a 21st-century workplace drives us to want to clarify the distinction.
No one likes a “boss”
This distinction is partially responsible for where the term “boss” gets such a negative connotation. The rest of the blame lies in etymology.
The word was originally borrowed from the Dutch baas, or “captain of a ship.” However, by the 17th century, “boss” was widely used in the United States as a euphemistic term for “overseer.” There’s an unconscious collective shudder — a kind of transgenerational trauma — that has left a stain on the word in modern usage.
Due in part to this history, the term often leaves employees feeling disempowered. When employees fall into the “boss trap,” they hand over our responsibility and agency to another person. And if we are the “boss,” we tend to lean heavily on positional power if we don’t have leadership skills. This “do what I say” attitude doesn’t exactly win any popularity contests. And even if it gets results, it saps the trust and camaraderie out of a workplace.
In the past, a leader was a boss. Today's leaders must be partners with their people... they no longer can lead solely based on positional power.
It’s also important to add that while the key difference between a boss and a leader is often positional, the traits of each are not. Sometimes, leaders act more like the stereotypical boss, exuding toxic traits. And bosses are compassionate, future-minded, and invested in team success. Perhaps that’s the attitude behind the recurrent movements to reclaim the word “boss” as one of empowerment.
Anyone — regardless of title — can embody the best traits of both. In fact, in smaller work environments, managers and business owners often find themselves wearing both hats. Employees, managers, and leaders alike benefit from embracing their inner boss and inner leaders. Here are some positive traits of the best leaders — and the best bosses.
Traits of a leader
Large companies are spending millions of dollars on leadership development every year. These organizations are hoping to quantify and capture some of the mystique around what makes a successful leader. True leaders can emerge at any level of the organization, not just in management positions. Providing leadership training to employees helps improve job satisfaction, collaboration, and teamwork.
A good leader:
- Effectively communicates their vision
- Provides leadership development opportunities for their team
- Has the ability to influence people positively
- Creates a sense of ownership and buy-in
- Embraces a coaching leadership style
- Is future-focused
- Is able to juggle multiple, large initiatives simultaneously
Traits of a boss
If we had to pick one factor that makes being a people manager so difficult, it’s the lack of training in the role. Many bosses are promoted because of their success as individual contributors. Unfortunately, being good at your job doesn’t mean you know how to help others. Without training to be a good coach, many bosses compensate with an authoritarian leadership style
That being said, there’s a reason “being a boss” is a thing on social media and in interpersonal circles. People are drawn to the energy of someone who’s in control. A boss — at least, the ones we love to see — aren’t pencil pushers or spacey visionaries. They’re capable, connected, and effective.
A good boss:
- Is authoritative and confident
- Can make strategic decisions quickly
- Knows how and when to effectively delegate tasks
- Can give — and take — constructive criticism
- Understands their team members’ skills and areas for growth
- Gives clear direction and communicates well
- Can convey how daily tasks support the larger team goals
So what’s the flip side of this? No matter if you call them a boss, leader, or anything in-between, poor people managers are notoriously bad listeners. They often refuse even the most constructive feedback and avoid taking responsibility. These individuals are often rigid in their decision-making process. They have a hard time adjusting to changing priorities and staying agile.
More than anything else, though, good or bad bosses and leaders influence how we feel. A poor relationship with the person in charge is one of the top reasons employees leave their jobs. Retention, belonging, and employee happiness are important to the well-being of you — and your organization. Here are 4 ways to become a better leader (and be the best boss, too).
Tips for becoming a better boss and leader (with examples)
No matter your title or position, it’s important to lead by example. The behaviors you model do more to influence company culture than anything you say. Here are powerful examples of how you can guide others through your actions and behaviors:
1. Ask for feedback
Creating opportunities for your team to share honestly with you empowers them and builds trust. This has a ripple effect on collaboration, decision-making, and your ability to stay agile.
As a leader, make it clear how people can reach you. At BetterUp, we open opportunities for feedback on workplace culture several times a year. Our leaders review the aggregated responses and present their findings in a company-wide meeting. They also share their commitments to improve areas of concern.
As a boss, encourage your direct reports to take ownership of their one-on-one meetings. Make it a time where they can ask questions and address concerns, as well as receive feedback.
2. Look for opportunities to recognize others
People love to be recognized for their work, and they want to look good in front of those in charge. Consciously or not, a lot of our behaviors are geared toward impression management — especially at work. And when we feel like we’re doing well, we want to try even harder.
As a leader, create opportunities to recognize employees across the company. When something goes well, highlight the contributions of individuals and teams.
As a boss, get to know the skills and professional goals of those on your team. Offer them chances to share tips on what they do particularly well or take on varied responsibilities. Even if you’re coaching poor performance in some areas, reinforce your belief in them with praise. Notice when they work to improve and celebrate it with them.
3. Learn to be a master communicator
Clear communication improves employee engagement, retention, and morale. Every person benefits from improving their communication skills. As a people manager, your communication skills have an exponential impact on your organization.
As a leader, know that the more people you communicate with at the same time, the more potential you have for misunderstanding. Recruit your managers to help you share your message. Share it publicly, then reinforce it via email or other resources afterward. Ask your managers to communicate with their employees and share any questions that frequently arise as a result.
As a boss, learn multiple ways to communicate expectations. Give your employees space to follow up with you in small team and one-on-one meetings. The larger your team gets, the more agile you’ll need to be in coaching and working with different learning styles.
4. Know the difference you make
As the saying goes, if even one person is following you, you’re a leader. Know that you have the opportunity to profoundly influence someone’s life, well-being, and career. Embrace that. Invest in your own coaching and development so that you can show up for others.
As a leader, pay attention to more than the bottom line. Check in regularly with your managers and teams to make sure that people are happy and thriving at work.
As a boss, develop a relationship with your direct reports. You don’t have to be best friends with them, but you should understand who they are. Encourage them to bring their whole selves to work and create a safe place for them to do so.
Quotes for bosses and leaders
“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader works in the open and the boss in covert. The leader leads, and the boss drives.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
— William Arthur Ward
“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
— Albert Schweitzer
“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
— George Patton
“Leadership is an action, not a position.”
— Donald McGannon
“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.”
— John C. Maxwell
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
“Surround yourself with great people; delegate authority; get out of the way.”
— Ronald Reagan
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
— Peter F. Drucker
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”
— Rosalynn Carter
Take ownership of your role
Historically, bosses were (at worst) domineering and control-driven. The “boss” was an obstacle to a healthy, creative workplace. Those bosses are now an endangered breed. They’re less well-suited for the reality of companies in a dynamic environment.
Modern workplaces need employees who are informed owners. To stay agile, every team member needs to be empowered to act without seeking approval from an entire chain of command. Taking ownership of your role (and embracing a management style that empowers others) reduces this friction. And you don’t have to be a manager to own your role.
No matter your role, own your influence — on both your team and the organization. The best "boss" or "leader" today is someone who provides clear direction, inspires, and clears obstacles for people to do their best work. Take ownership of the unique strengths and skills you bring to your team — and empower others to do the same.
BetterUp Staff Writer