Boss Vs. Leader (Key Differences With Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published July 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Leadership affects every aspect of a company, regardless of your position. When managers strive to be leaders, rather than simply bosses, organizations achieve more. Reviewing effective leadership practices might be helpful for you if you wish to move beyond giving orders and guide your team to success. In this article, we distinguish the difference between a boss vs. leader and look at steps that you can take to ensure your leadership style leads to effective employee management.

What is a boss?

A boss is a supervisor or manager who oversees their team without the use of leadership practices. Bosses hold some authority within an organization's hierarchy, but their titles are mismatched to their conduct, their achievements, and how they help their employees succeed. Managing without leadership can limit the success of an organization by failing to maximize the potential of the team or act on opportunities for innovation.

What is a leader?

A leader is someone who actively participates in the success of an organization by demonstrating a high level of professionalism in their own work while supporting others. Some employees earn promotions because of the leadership qualities they exhibit in their work habits. Leaders help their teams accomplish more because they understand the organization's mission and vision for the future, besides offering useful skills and attributes.

Related: 10 Common Leadership Styles

Key differences between a boss vs. leader

There are several key differences between a boss vs. leader. There are the main factors to consider:

Communication styles

When supervisors are bosses, they instruct their employees on exactly what to do and how to do it. However, supervisors who are leaders have discussions with their employees rather than simply issuing orders. Leaders discuss strategies with their employees to accomplish a particular task and listen carefully to their opinions. Leaders may assign tasks or projects to their employees, but they also foster an environment in which employees know they can provide feedback or suggestions.

Example: A boss assigns each employee specific responsibilities and methods for fulfilling them when starting a new project. These managers expect employees to speak with them only if they have questions.

A leader might also assign each employee specific tasks. However, they encourage employees to approach their assigned responsibilities innovatively and creatively. Leaders are also open to conversations about adding or revising tasks related to the project.

Responses to mistakes

Although mistakes occur in every professional setting, some bosses act as if mistakes should never occur. They respond to mistakes by becoming upset and making the employee feel bad about their error. The boss may blame someone else when they make a mistake. These types of managers rarely help their employees make improvements to avoid similar mistakes and instead expect them to figure out what went wrong on their own.

Leaders understand mistakes are inevitable and can be useful learning experiences. This attitude helps them respond to mistakes with compassion, as long as employees put forth an honest effort. Employees feel comfortable discussing mistakes with leaders because they know they will be treated respectfully. Leaders take ownership of their mistakes and ask how they could have done more to help others avoid mistakes.

Example: An employee who works for a boss undercharges a client. The employee considers hiding the mistake to avoid conflict but emails the manager instead. The manager calls the employee into his office to express frustration, then tells the employee to go back to work.

An employee who makes the same mistake when supervised by a leader immediately goes to acknowledge the error, wishing to find a solution. The leader thanks the employee for taking responsibility and they discuss what led to the mistake and how to avoid repeating it.

Related: Leadership Skills: Definitions and Examples

Problem-solving strategies

Some supervisors want to fix problems as quickly as possible. While this may help them run their business more efficiently in the short term, it can prove challenging for them over time because only supervisors know how to resolve the issue if it happens again. Leaders make an effort to teach their employees various problem-solving strategies and solutions. Creating sustainable solutions that involve multiple employees can help a business succeed long term.

Example: A computing system malfunctions and a boss fixes the problem themselves, letting their employees know when they resolve the issue. A leader either involves their employees in fixing the problem or explains thoroughly how to fix it if it occurs again. They may also provide alternative approaches or solutions to mitigate the possibility of the same problem occurring in the future.

Self-perceptions

Some managers might perceive their role as one of power and authority, concluding that they are exempt from following the same rules as the rest of the staff. When confronted with a challenge, these managers look outward for a fault because they believe they are above making mistakes.

Leaders perceive themselves as equal members of the team. They see their job as a matter of empowering others and setting an example. Because employees might follow their behaviour, leaders respect the organization's standards at all times. Leaders have a sense of humility and when encountering a challenge, look inward to analyze how they can improve.

Example: A boss may become anxious when one employee is under consideration for a promotion. Fearing a loss of authority over the employee, the boss becomes more critical of the employee and otherwise avoids any interaction.

A leader receives the same news and feels proud that the employee has made professional progress. The leader remains outside of the selection process but continues supporting the employee and providing constructive feedback.

Related: How To Lead Through a Crisis

How to be a supervisor who's a leader

Here are six steps to help you manage your employees as a leader:

1. Review your communication habits

Think about how you communicate with your employees. A leader creates an environment where their employees feel comfortable sharing feedback, innovating new methods, and giving their opinions. Consider your communication habits regarding:

  • various communication channels, such as emails, memos, and meetings

  • the tone, approach, and style of what you are saying

  • the ways in which employees can give you feedback

2. Acknowledge blame and take credit

Take responsibility for your team's mistakes. Even if multiple team members cause errors related to a group project, a good leader takes the blame for misleading the team or failing to catch the mistake earlier. Leaders can hold their employees accountable for mistakes while also acknowledging their own role in a group's shortcomings.

Leaders also take credit when their team succeeds. While completing a project successfully is a team effort, leaders can rightly accept credit for helping guide the team toward their workplace victory.

Related: 9 Types of Management Styles for Effective Leadership

3. Build teamwork

Encourage your team to work collaboratively, exchange ideas, and celebrate successes. Some supervisors may foster a competitive environment among their employees. An effective leader, however, encourages their employees to recognize that they can all benefit from one another's efforts, ideas and successes. Help your employees develop a sense of teamwork by:

  • inspiring collaborative efforts

  • mediating conflicts with a positive attitude

  • planning group activities

  • creating an internal mentorship program

4. Follow through on giving support

Follow through with the commitments you make to your employees. Outstanding leaders fully understand what promises to their employees mean before they make them, so they can commit to fulfilling them. Make sure that your employees understand how they can seek assistance or look for supportive resources.

Related: What Is Strategic Management and Why Is It Important?

5. Train your replacement

Train your employees to fulfil some of your responsibilities. Even if you plan to remain in your position, give your employees additional duties and teach them your skills. Treat each employee as if they have the potential to one day take over your duties and give them the training they need to do a good job. Great leaders assist their employees in building new skills, take on various responsibilities, and advance their careers.

6. Emphasize two-way feedback

Be receptive to both giving and receiving feedback from your employees. A good leader knows how to provide their employees with constructive feedback that can help them overcome their weaknesses and hone their skills. Leaders also encourage employees to provide them with constructive feedback in return.

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