Boss VS Leader: 13 Key Differences & Characteristics

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Have you ever thought about the words boss and leader? Often, people mistake one for the other. This may be because, on paper, they appear similar.

Even the dictionary defines both similarly… but, in actuality, a boss and a leader couldn't be more different from each other. While a boss and a leader may fill the same role, they fulfill these roles in opposite ways.

To help clarify this, we're going to discuss 13 key differences between a boss and a leader… but first, we’ll give you our definition of the two.

What is a Boss?

A boss is a person in a supervisory role. They oversee the operations of an organization. They ensure that goals are met. They manage the actions of the members of the organization.

In fact, a boss may sometimes be called a manager or supervisor. Therefore, boss is a title given to someone in a managerial position. They've been given this title and position.

What is a Leader?

On the other hand, a leader is the one who leads. Leadership is a character trait that can be learned. Therefore, it's also a skill.

In addition, it's not dependent on being in a specific role. Leadership is influence. A leader sees what needs to be improved and inspires others to change.

Ironically, a leader doesn't rely on a specific role or title. Anyone can be a leader. A person grows into leadership.

13 Key Differences between a Boss and a Leader

1. Ordering vs Inspiring

A boss gives orders. They rely on the authority of their position and title to tell people what to do. Moreover, they expect people to follow their orders based on that authority. It's about controlling people and the situation to meet standards.

On the other hand, a leader uses their influence to inspire others to act. The leader's influence stems from their character. People trust the leader, and accept the leader's vision for change.

2. Results-Oriented vs People-Oriented

Since the boss strives to meet standards, they're results-oriented. For the boss, it's about getting things done. They have to keep the organization running like a well-oiled machine, so it can make its numbers. When the team wins, everybody wins.

The leader is completely the opposite. Leaders put the people first. The leader strives for commitment from the team. To achieve this, the leader needs to get the team to buy into the vision.

Furthermore, after the team accepts the vision, they can take ownership of vision fulfillment. This helps the team grow as individuals, which makes for a stronger team. Therefore, when a team member wins, the team wins.

3. Structure vs Vision

One of the main differences in a boss vs leader centers on the focus. A boss focuses on the organization's structure. A boss feels the need to maintain the status quo.

The structure must remain as is. They might say things like, “This is the way we've always done things.” Also, you might hear, “If it isn't broken, don't fix it.”

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A leader is someone who focuses on the vision rather than the organization's structure.

Meanwhile, a leader focuses on the vision for the organization. The vision represents where the team is headed. To get from the team's current situation to the end result, change must happen.

For the leader, things can always improve. It's not about bigger. It's about making things better. It's growth mindset fueled by the vision.

4. Administration vs Collaboration

Another key difference between a boss and a leader exists in how they relate to their team. First of all, a boss sees team members as subordinates. As to guidance, they tell subordinates what to do. In this capacity, they administrate the team. It's a top-down hierarchy.

A leader flattens the team organizational chart. They use collaboration as their structural model. They don't oversee the team. They work with their team.

In fact, you can see this simply by using the term teammates instead of subordinates. The leader understands that team members possess strengths that the leader does not. Therefore, the leader seeks input from the team.

5. Pointing to the Example vs Being the Example

When it comes to modeling behavior, a boss points to others as an example. First and foremost, a boss will always point to policies and procedures. Then, a boss will make an example out of a subordinate that follows policies and procedures. Thus, a boss looks for an ideal employee.

For their example, a leader turns to themselves. A leader believes that they have to set the example. They must model the behavior and character they expect from their team members.

A leader will never ask a follower to do something that the leader is unwilling to do themselves. Plus, a leader will roll up their sleeves and demonstrate how to do something, whereas a boss just tells you what to do and how to do it.

6. Being a Know-it-all vs Having an Open Mind

Unfortunately, a boss thinks they know everything. To them, it must be true because they've been given this title and position. Thus, they must be the expert. Therefore, things have to be done their way.

Thankfully, a leader realizes that there is still more for them to learn. They seek learning opportunities, including learning from their followers. This growth mindset opens their minds to new ideas. Thus, a leader appreciates innovation.

7. Oversight vs Ownership

When it comes to supervision, a boss always keeps one open eye. Ever vigilant, a boss looks for moments to catch subordinates underperforming. This creates an environment of fear and mistrust.

Compare this to the leader that gives team members ownership of the process. A leader provides flexibility in how things are accomplished. The team members get to choose how things get done. This creates a positive creative environment.

8. Placing the Blame vs Taking the Blame

If something goes wrong, a boss wants to find out who was at fault. They want to put the blame on someone else. Incidentally, the boss usually lets everyone know who was at fault, too.

A leader doesn't point out blame. Instead, a leader takes responsibility for the team's shortcomings. A leader accepts that a failure for the team is a failure of leadership. Additionally, the leader uses it as a learning opportunity for their team.

Instead of finding fault, a leader figures out what went wrong and works with the team to make improvements.

9. One-way vs Two-Way Communication

A boss communicates downward towards their subordinates. Usually, this communication involves telling them what needs to be done and how to do it. Therefore, there's no feedback. This creates a disconnect between a boss and their subordinates.

To address this disconnect, a leader allows for two-way communication. A leader usually promotes an open-door policy, so they can listen to their team members.

Since a leader cares about their followers, they want to hear the concerns and needs of their team members. They can't address these concerns if they don't know about them. As a result, a leader creates proper feedback channels.

10. Tearing People Down vs Building People Up

To put it bluntly, a boss tears people down. A boss feels the need to criticize people. This usually takes place under the guise of correction. Once again, a boss is results-oriented. If a subordinate's actions don't measure up, the boss will let them know in a negative way.

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A boss tears people down and also feels the need to criticize people.

In opposition, a leader knows that team members are only human. They need encouragement and support to achieve their goals. Therefore, a leader builds people up.

Yes, a leader understands that sometimes team members need guidance. In these situations, a leader chooses to offer positive criticism along with the support needed to make changes. This inspires the team members to want to change.

11. Isolation vs Inclusion

Because of the top-down hierarchy a boss appreciates, a boss will often isolate themselves from their subordinates. For example, you would never see a boss eating lunch with their subordinates. Generally, unless there's a problem, they ignore their people. Under a boss, you could go days without hearing from them.

Alternatively, a leader needs to be among their team. They invest time and effort in building connections with their team members. A leader understands that to mentor someone, you have to connect with them. Therefore, a leader works alongside the team to develop them.

12. Speaking vs Communicating

Since a boss takes an authoritative stance, they will speak to their subordinates. Usually, this takes the form of giving orders. It's not uncommon to hear a boss say, “Because I said so.” A boss says what they need to say, then moves on.

On the other hand, a leader actually communicates with team members. Communication involves both speaking and listening. Also, a leader understands that they have to build a connection with their team members. This connection encourages team members to listen and act upon the leader's communication.

To communicate, a leader establishes a rapport with their team members. A leader's care and concern for their team members establishes this rapport. It's further strengthened by the leader's positive, empowering language.

13. Demanding Respect vs Earning Respect

The final characteristic of a boss vs leader revolves around respect. A boss demands respect. They feel it's due to them because of their position and title. Also, they feel scare tactics and fear enforce this belief. Ultimately, a boss feels worthy of respect because they are in control.

This is in complete opposition to a leader's approach to respect. A leader starts by respecting their team members. A leader believes that every team member is a person of worth. Furthermore, a leader appreciates every team member's contribution to the team.

This level of respect engenders respect for the leader. Therefore, a leader earns respect.

Final Thoughts on Boss vs Leader

The difference between a boss and a leader goes beyond definitions. The difference exists in the individual's character.

A boss demands respect, even if it isn’t earned. They often have tunnel vision and a one-track mind, unwilling to listen to other’s viewpoints. A leader exudes positive character traits. Also, a leader acts for the benefit of others. By putting team members first, a leader ensures that team members will be productive. After all, you can't be a leader without followers.

For more information on being a leader, check out our 17 Best Leadership Books to Advance Your Career. This article will prove helpful both professionally, and personally. “If you build it, they will come.”

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