Boss vs. leader: What’s the difference, and which are you?

The two terms might be used interchangeably, but they are different. The boss vs. leader equation returns tremendously different results, revealing key differences between the two styles of leadership.

A leader inspires and coaches people, while bosses ultimately diminish value, favoring ego and dismissing growth and advancement. Leaders learn, and bosses think they already know everything.

Historically, we’ve lived in a society that encouraged bosses to focus on short-term results, despite company value growing faster when businesses put leadership and responsibility first.

While Led Zeppelin performed Stairway to Heaven and Lynyrd Skynyrd had Free Bird, rock star CEOs were destroying far more than they were creating. They were bosses.

Today however, we’re finally seeing that equation shift. Those establishing effective leadership styles are now much more concerned with corporate responsibility and long-term results than with what happened last quarter. 

So what separates bosses and leaders? The differences are pretty straightforward.

A leader has an open mind; a boss already knows it all

“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” – Frank Zappa.

The 2020s have laid out one fundamental point for us; if you think you know it all, you have already failed yourself. This was made apparent during a time of dynamic change, where most of us didn’t really know anything, especially how it would end.

A leader empowers

A great leader understands that. They know how much more they need to learn and that learning doesn’t end. They seek to learn from their people and can pivot between a coach, a mentor, and a wide-eyed student. A leader holds an open mind through the unknown, keeps a positive attitude, and supports their team.

A boss that thinks they know everything destroys value. Nothing is more detrimental to engagement and problem-solving than the know-it-all-boss. This type of personality strips others of their ownership and accountability.

When bosses imply or tell employees that they don’t or can’t know as much as they do, employees will be less motivated to learn. This creates a missed opportunity to grow the team’s collective IQ altogether.

A leader collaborates; a boss dictates

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller.

Business is a collaborative process, and leaders collaborate. Even the most outstanding innovators have needed the input of others to create the best solutions. Good leaders foster collaboration across the organization. They focus on other employees and bring them together to develop ideas, brainstorm, and create.

A leader collaborates

An intelligent manager can be a great asset until they are not. The minute a boss negates the benefits of brainstorming to create innovative solutions, they become a company liability. Success is now thought of as the result of one person having an idea, not a team developing a solution.

The most significant loss from a boss that dictates is the loss of feedback and the impact it has on personal growth. Open dialogue reaffirms the intrinsic need of employees to contribute and continually improve. Without reaffirming that their opinions and input matter, their needs can feel unmet, creating a pause in the organizations’ advancement.

A boss that dictates essentially stagnates the company’s progression and eliminates innovation.

A leader empowers; a boss keeps a watchful eye

“If you want to be a true professional, do something outside yourself.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

For many, a watchful eye can be another reason to rebel. Oppression eliminates cohesion and foments resentment. Few things destroy employee performance and job satisfaction more than feeling untrusted. Empowering people is one of the most important aspects of a boss vs. leader.

Bosses tend to keep a watchful eye when running an organization, which comes from a place of entitlement. Since the boss is the only person that can do everything right, all others have the potential to do wrong. This thought process neglects that a company achieves its goals best when people work as a team.

Leaders empower and motivate employees by putting themselves on a similar level of communication with employees. When a leader leads, they admit their flaws, trust others to do the right thing, and lift them to greatness. Due to such behavior, employees feel empowered and are in their dream job. They become compelled to make a real impact on the company when leaders inspire confidence.

A leader takes the blame; a boss puts the blame on others

“Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts.” – Nikki Giovanni.

One of the most respected actions anyone can take is saying, “this is my fault.” Owning our mistakes is how we learn from them and how others know they can trust us always to try to do the right thing. Culture is fostered where everyone takes responsibility and learns, taking companies to even higher levels of success.

Companies are most likely to fail when management doesn’t take responsibility for mistakes, instead trying to blame them on others or situations they say are out of their control. Their inability to own their mistakes and learn from them often means they leave holes for competitors to exploit. Hubris destroys companies.

A leader sets an example; a boss makes an example out of people

“Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility..” – Peter Drucker.

Successful leaders know that people look to them to set an example for company excellence. Their ability to communicate authentically on the employee’s level ensures that the example resonates across the organization, and setting a standard of excellence inspires people to meet that example.

A boss makes an example out of people

Bosses try to set an example by using others and their mistakes. Public punishment is meant to scare employees into compliance and make them fear making similar mistakes. Scaring people is the opposite of creating a culture of excellence and innovation. When employees fear making mistakes, they stop innovating and try to hide times when they need help or have a concern.

No employee can work towards excellence when living in fear.

A leader is a coach; a boss is a hero

There is a common saying, “Never meet your heroes,” which implies you’ll usually be very disappointed. The biggest problem is that a hero can’t be wrong and excellent simultaneously. Heroes have to project an infallible persona, which means they must set themselves apart from others who aren’t heroes.

Heroes have to find victims to save to continue looking like a hero. It is all about the hero’s hope that others will appreciate them for their good deeds. Saving people doesn’t help them grow and develop within the company, and the hero robs people of empowerment.

Coaches are out among others, working with them and training them for greater responsibility and contribution. The coach is compassionate and provides encouragement and support instead of coming to “rescue” employees.

When working alongside employees to bring them up, they become more motivated and happier in their jobs. They become company contributors, always moving themselves and the company forward when leaders teach.

Are you a boss or a leader; which one works for you?

Looking at yourself and your leadership style, which do you see; the behavior of a boss or a leader? You may have always functioned more as a boss, and it is your comfort zone, but is it serving your company and fostering excellence?

It’s not the easiest change for bosses to become leaders, but you can do it, and it will pay you back dividends.

The difference between boss and leader responsibilities

Bosses and leaders have very different work responsibilities due to their different approaches in the workplace.

Boss responsibilities

Bosses have responsibilities centered around management planning that accommodate their work style based on setting metrics and demanding results. The most common responsibilities for bosses are:

  • Creating objectives – Remember, the boss knows everything, so the boss knows what the objectives need to be. Don’t expect them to set reasonable objectives or solicit feedback on the objectives that have been set because bosses expect greatness. (see our blog on Goals vs. Objectives)
  • Organizing – A boss organizes based on observations only. Since they do not often make themselves accessible for employees to give input and opinions, the organizational changes will often be unproductive if not detrimental.
  • Making plans – Planning comes down to only what the boss sees as the path forward. When only one person picks the path, there is a high likelihood that the company ends up lost.
  • Delegating – Once goals, organizing, and planning are set, the boss tells employees their responsibilities and holds them to the strict results that are expected.
  • Developing strategies – Strategy is critical for all businesses but requires diverse inputs and knowledge of what happens at all company levels. A company strategy developed by a manager insulated from how their organization works would not be expected to bear fruit.

Leader responsibilities

Leading your team

Leaders’ responsibilities are dramatically different, mainly because they are intended to inspire and involve others. Leaders set the stage for company cohesion that eventually brings about organizing, planning, and strategy. Leader responsibilities include:

  • Creating visions – Objectives are dictated; ideas are shared and cultivated. Where objectives mostly adhere to the status quo, visions create the next iteration, and leaders create more and more.
  • Innovating – Leaders are innovators that test and probe new ideas. They also incorporate others’ thoughts to create ideas that transform companies.
  • Inspiring action – Sharing visions and innovations for feedback and further ideation, the leader includes and inspires. With new directions to take the company and buy-in achieved, employees are ready to act as valuable members of the organization.
  • Empowering others – Much of a leader’s work centers around the continued growth and empowerment of others in the company. When leaders lead, it involves time spent with employees, picking their brains, and understanding their challenges.
  • Developing culture – Great culture must constantly be reaffirmed throughout a company and spread to every corner. Great leaders accept the responsibility to foster that positive culture as a daily priority.

When a good leader focuses first on visions, inspiration, empowerment, culture, and action, everything else that fosters company success falls into place.

How can a boss become a leader?

When a boss wants to transition to an inspirational leader, they must admit they can do better and that what they have been doing isn’t effective. Awareness precedes choice; they cannot choose a different path until they are willing to see that the path they are on is flawed and commit to change through action. Only when they admit that what they have been doing isn’t effective can they begin to work through some fundamental steps.


The most critical actions a boss can take to become a leader are:

  • Communicate well – Leaders are excellent communicators involving others at all organizational levels. To become a good leader, a boss must develop communication skills. Not only do they need to ensure their message has an impact, but they have to learn to ask questions and learn from others. The act of successful leadership is not a one-person show; it requires the input of others.
  • Stop micromanaging – Yes, managing still has to happen in every company. It’s micromanaging that destroys organizations. True leaders let people have autonomy. Trust them to do the right thing and celebrate them when they succeed.
  • Self-reflect daily – Change doesn’t happen without awareness, and the transition to becoming a leader won’t come about overnight. Daily self-reflection helps identify when behaviors exhibit leadership and reaffirm the commitment to ongoing improvement.
  • Stop saving people – A boss has to commit to being a coach, not a hero, and must stop saving people, instead letting them learn and work their way through situations.
  • Take ownership – No boss can ever hope to become a leader without taking ownership of their mistakes. Every error needs to be assessed, and responsibility must be taken.
  • Celebrate people and diversity – Leaders know the value of a diverse workplace and reaffirming others through celebration. Celebrate achievements and the diverse societal and cultural factors contributing to the company culture.
  • Acknowledge not knowing things – Good leaders know what they don’t know. If a boss wants to become a leader, admitting a lack of knowledge is essential.

Entire libraries could be built to house all of the books about leadership. The actions given here are just some basics to start with. Coaches and counselors can help bosses become influential leaders; picking up a few books on how to be a better leader is never a bad idea.

Go be one of the great leaders

Leaders don’t just produce better results but experience more meaningful lives as they elevate and inspire others. Their employees respect them and contribute. The workplace is a collaborative culture that moves the company and its people forward. Every benefit is gained when a management style is based on being a leader, not a boss.

Often, when you’re living in the thick of something, it can be difficult to take a step back and take a hard and truly objective look at what your next steps should be and how to get there. A fresh, third-party approach is so often just what you need to see a brighter, more rewarding future for you and your team. Our newest offering. the 16-week Business Value Accelerator for life science industry leaders can help you do just that. Through this accelerator, you will receive 1:1 coaching and hands-on help that’s specifically tailored to the needs and wants of your team. All the gains without the high consultancy rates!


Ready to get started?

Let’s hop on a call