Do you think there is a difference between a boss and a leader?

By Julie Smith and Adam Tarnow

That was the question we found ourselves discussing recently. It’s a challenging question and at first, we thought this might just be one of those questions that would be fun to debate during a happy hour with your colleagues. Like, “is there is a difference between a writer and an author?” or “is there a difference between a runner and an athlete?”

However, the more we talked, the more we realized there are some distinctions. In our careers, we’ve both been lucky enough to work for (and follow) some amazing leaders and a few not-so-amazing leaders. The difference between the amazing and the not-so-amazing has more to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a leader.

With all that being said, here are three differences we noted between a boss and a leader.

1. A boss has a title; a leader has influence.

Many people don’t understand that you can be a boss and not a leader or vice versa.

People are given job titles without understanding what they mean and the responsibility to others around them. The powerplay of the boss as a decision-maker often overshadows what’s best for those reporting to him or her. A true leader doesn’t have to prove or say they are in charge. Instead, they quietly seek to inspire and empower everyone around them. A leader wants to bring everyone with them. A boss who is not a leader divides the “up here” vs. “down there,” and does not understand how to earn vs. demand respect.

An example is something we’ve seen in the news very recently. Removing all politics from the equation, consider the photos of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his brown t-shirt with his troops. Alternatively, consider the photo of Russia’s Vladimir Putin seated at the head of a long table with seats and distance separating him from his team at the far end of the table.

Leadership is taking initiative for the benefit of others.

It won’t always feel like a benefit. There are tough conversations leaders have to have (hard feedback, finding a new career for someone who is just not a fit, etc). It’s impossible to be 100% altruistic, but there is joy if every decision you make is grounded in acting for the benefit of others.  

Both of us strongly agree that a key differentiator is humility. Leaders look through the window to see who we can celebrate. Bosses look in the mirror, focusing on themselves. A true leader gets in the trenches with their team and earns respect. They work just as hard as everyone else, and they are always listening neutrally to everyone around them. 

As John Maxwell said, “He who thinks he leads but has no followers is only taking a walk.” 

True leaders emerge when they voluntarily have people following them, because they are taking initiative for their followers’ benefit. 

2. A boss fills a spot on an org chart; a leader gathers and galvanizes people

A great leader makes it an ‘us’ thing. For example, saying ‘my staff’ communicates that ‘I’m up here, and you are down there.’ The implication is that you are here to serve me. 

The circle of ‘us.’ 

Think of ‘us’ as a circle. A good leader puts ‘us’ in a circle. Conversely, a boss puts people into a hierarchy. While there needs to be a hierarchy to some degree, strong leaders curve the lines of a traditional organizational chart into a circle of trust.

Leading people from multiple generations introduces more complexity into this circle. For example, prior to a world of knowledge being available online, we asked those above us in an org chart for help and depended on them almost exclusively for knowledge and answers. But, as the workforce shifts, Gen Z is resourceful enough to learn what they can on-demand vs. going through a hierarchy to ask questions and seek knowledge. Leaders will have to become comfortable with this complex web that is more circular than hierarchical.

Yesterday’s leaders vs. today’s leaders

It’s not what you did, and it doesn’t matter that you’ve been in business since 1983. Or, if you are the owner of the company that you built from scratch. People want to know the ‘why’ in their work and what they are working towards. How are they are a part of it? 

Help them see where they fit in the vision. Culture is everything. Every person in the organization needs to not only understand the company’s vision, but more importantly, how they fit into that vision. 

The best leaders are those who can relate with whom they are talking vs. expecting others to relate to them. We need to see our people differently. Our people are the heroes in our organizations, the main characters in our internal story. As leaders, we are their guides. As leaders, it isn’t your journey, it’s their journey! How can you be a good guide in the moment?

A boss is focused on getting the ‘to do’ list done and efficiency. But, a leader rises above daily tactical work. It’s about the person sitting in front of me, not about the policy or how we did it in the past. What does this person want and need? 

True leaders are so humble that they don’t often come to the forefront. Often, the strongest leaders are those who stand behind the person on stage.  

3. A boss seeks to be understood; a leader seeks to understand.

Listen to understand, not to react. 

Who’s doing what, how’s it going, have you thought about it from this perspective? 

Really listen to what people around you are saying. True leaders dig into this and HEAR what team members are really saying. A phrase like, “I heard what you said, would this work,” validates that your team member was heard.

When you take listening, take it to another level and focus on processing where each member of your team is coming from when they comment or speak, their behaviors will make sense. You’ll also start to bridge the generational gap. 

Also pick up on what isn’t being said. Sharp tones, under the breath comments, lack of engagement, body language. It’s all a part of listening that helps a leader engage others. 

Strong leadership requires being open minded. Bosses, on the other hand don’t listen genuinely. With a mind closed around the path of least resistance, a boss will resort to ‘this is how we’ve always done it, vs. this is how we are going to do it.’

Emerging leaders- don’t wait for the title. 

We are both often asked, “What do I need to do to become a leader in my organization?” “How can I become a leader in my career?”

First, understand that people must be empowered to become leaders in their organizations. They need to be trusted in their roles and given the opportunity to make mistakes, evolve, and grow.

It doesn’t matter what you do. Accountant. administrative professional. Salesperson. Data analyst. Client success advisor. Your title goes here. If you are driven to lead others, it’s simple. Keep your head down, and keep taking initiative for the benefit of others and the leaders in your organization WILL find you. Whatever seat you are in.

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