The terms boss or leader can be used interchangeably for some but in the business world they have come to mean very different things.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the Boss as “a person who is in charge of a worker or organization”.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the Leader as, “a person who leads or commands a group, organization, or a country”.

So in purely semantic terms the dictionary definitions are very similar.

However there are clear differences in how management experts regard the terms.

Defining the term ‘boss’

The term boss is often seen negatively, evoking the image of someone simply barking out orders without any recourse to empathy or understanding. It implies that people are simply told what to do.

Bosses don’t ask or prefer certain actions, they expect and they tell what needs to be done. Breaking 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.

Defining the term ‘leader’

The term leader is seen more positively.  We tend to say things like “he was a natural leader” or “she was a great and accomplished leader” and those with these attributes are highly prized.

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 tasks done, the emphasis with a leader is not solely in the result but also on the process.

Traits of leadership compared to being a boss

Here are some key areas that illustrate the behavior of bosses and leaders:

#1 – Change the focus

  • Bosses will focus on the outcome, not the means of achieving them.
  • Leaders will focus on changing people and the organization.
  • Being a boss is about guaranteeing the organization the best financial results that will help guarantee the continuation of the business.
  • A leader will be more interested in the process and the people behind it.
  • For the leader, the objective is always about achieving the vision he or she has set for the specific company.Leadership versus Boss

#2 – The driving force

  • For the boss, the motivation stems from the focus on standards which are often determined by their ability to enhance productivity and profitability within the organization.
  • 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 and the kind of business values the leader would like to see implemented.
  • The boss’ attempt to control and to motivate the workforce is about rewards and punishments.
  • 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.

#3 – The approach to work and objectives

  • A boss could be described as a supervisor, as his or her approach is about informing the subordinates about the task at hand.
  • A leader approaches the work through innovation and collaboration.
  • A boss will decide on work and objectives without consulting colleagues or subordinates.
  • A leader might ask the subordinate to be part of coming up with a new idea.
  • The leader approaches work as an opportunity to teach and to empower the subordinates.

#4 – The source of authority

  • A boss gets their authority from their official position.
  • A leader’s authority comes from subordinates.
  • A boss will assume authority and be surprised if it’s not forthcoming.
  • A leader gets authority because they are able to communicate their vision and inspire others to follow.

#5 – Communication and delegation

  • A boss’ communication is about getting the message across – what the objective is and how to get there – without listening to what subordinate has to say.
  • A leader will be interested in the opinion of the subordinate and generally, focuses on ensuring communication is based on discussion.
  • The approach by a boss is task focused and the boss is in charge of the decision as to who does what.
  • In terms of delegation, leaders are not only delegating responsibility, but also authority to a varying degree.

#6 – Accountability

  • A boss delegates responsibility and therefore, places accountability on the shoulders of the person performing the specific tasks.
  • For a leader, the full accountability is on the leader’s shoulders.
  • If there is a failure, it is because someone didn’t follow the procedures in the correct manner laid out by the boss.
  • The leader wants to find solutions to fix the failures instead of blaming the subordinates.
  • Accountability for a leader means admitting mistakes, but not dwelling on them.

There is a distinction between being a boss or a leader. Leaders need to gain the trust of subordinates and ensure they are inspired to follow, a boss simply uses their powerful position to get subordinates on board through fear or intimidation.

Someone in the position of a boss can be a leader 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?

This post summarizes a much longer article here:

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