Boss vs. Leader: What Are the Fundamental Differences?
Updated 14 September 2022
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You may hear the terms boss and leader interchangeably in your workplace, depending on your company and industry. Although they have some similarities, it is important to note that they are not the same. As you gain experience, you may have to take on one or both of these roles during your career, and it is beneficial to understand the exact differences between a boss and a leader. In this article, we examine differences in the role of a boss versus a leader and identify the character traits that distinguish them.
Comparing Boss Vs. Leader
Boss and leader are words that show similar leadership characteristics. These professionals provide instructions and set expectations for others. The strongest similarity between the two roles is that they are leadership positions responsible for other team members. A boss has a specific administrative role in managing the employees in an organisation, whereas a leader motivates and guides those under their influence. Communication from a boss could be more one-sided, whereas a leader may have more open conversations with their team members.
Different situations call for different leadership styles. A boss often focuses on profitability. Their primary role is to follow standards set by an organisation. They often have financial and operational responsibilities. A leader, in comparison, may not have the pressure of financial accountability. The way they operate to reach their goals may be very different from a boss's operational practices.
Related: Top Qualities of an Outstanding Leader
What Are The Key Differences Between A Boss And A Leader?
Some attributes and characteristics distinguish a boss from a leader. Here are some of the key differences between these two job titles:
Primary focus or objective
The primary goal and objective of a boss is usually related to the company's profit. Their leadership methods depend on authority, which comes with their seniority in an organisation, their ability to take risks and their problem-solving capabilities. Authority enables them to give orders, enforce rules or regulations and also make independent decisions. They often prioritise the goals of the company and act in its best interests. They may evaluate team members' performance to ensure they are completing tasks efficiently.
A leader's objective is to influence their team for the benefit of an organisation. Though they may be profit-oriented, leaders do not compromise on the process. Leaders may focus more on the personal development of team members. They may create systems or procedures to set team goals and encourage growth. They work towards influencing and transforming the character and behaviour of their team. For example, they may establish team and individual goals for each professional. They can then create training programmes or share resources to help team members achieve these goals.
These professionals may focus on a different timeline. A boss may focus on tangible results and encourage the team to work on instant remedial measures. They primarily focus on meeting the company's objectives. Leaders focus more on long-term solutions and making the process useful for all involved parties. This does not mean that leaders are not result-oriented. They simply try to ensure that the team creates results while also growing or developing new skills.
For example, if there is a delivery deadline and supplies have not reached on time, a boss could order team members to replace the supplies with alternatives to meet the deadline. A leader may work to find the root cause of the problem and solve it with the help and support of all involved team members. This may help to ensure that such situations do not arise in the future. Additionally, this process may enable team members to take remedial measures on their own in similar situations.
Every organisation can use a system to ensure accountability. A boss may enforce accountability on their staff using targets, deadlines, appraisals and performance reviews, often causing an increase in work pressure among staff members. Leaders hold themselves accountable and share responsibilities with their team. They may assist them in navigating tasks and coach them personally. In this manner, a leader may encourage team members to develop a sense of responsibility all by themselves.
For example, when there is a gap in target achievement, a boss is more likely to warn concerned staff and formally note a lack of performance. A leader may encourage self-appraisal for team members to identify problems on their own and present improvement plans.
Related: Self Management Skills: Definition and Examples
These two professionals may communicate in different ways. Bosses may provide verbal instructions more often, which means they often communicate directly without having a conversation. Employees and team members may have opportunities to ask questions, but they often listen to a boss and follow company policies. Leaders typically encourage open communication and invite diverse opinions and conflicting perspectives. Depending on the company and the leader, the team members may have an equal say in operational and functional matters. A leader may develop active listening to help understand their team members.
For example, in a marketing meeting, a boss may dictate a strategy for the coming quarter, while a leader may take suggestions from all team members and consider their opinions on the best ways to proceed.
Related: Active Listening Skills: Definition and Examples
What Separates A Boss From A Leader?
It is important to remember that though many traits separate a boss and a leader, most organisations use both leaders and bosses for balanced, sustainable growth. Organisations can ideally promote both leadership and administrative traits in every employee to ensure sustained success. A team with these complementary traits can improve workplace productivity and be a tremendous benefit to the organisation.
There could be occasions when a boss could show traits of a leader or vice versa. Since many traits that define a boss and a leader are not absolute, there could be some overlaps. However, some distinctive traits that separate a boss from a leader include:
1. Area of expertise
A boss is a subject-matter expert, whereas a leader could be a subject-matter expert as well as an expert on people and professional relationships. These professionals may have strong technical skills to succeed in their roles. A leader may also have strong technical skills, but they also use interpersonal skills often to encourage and motivate their team members. They may use active listening, empathy and communication to lead their team.
2. Definition of success
A boss may measure success objectively, based on well-defined indicators and figures. A leader may measure and link every individual's personal success to the overall success of the team. They try to give importance to the subjective definition of success for each team member.
A boss identifies short-term goals and may focus on finding prompt solutions for complex problems. A leader may take time to analyse the problem as a whole to create a long-term solution. Leaders may opt to implement long-standing systemic changes to mitigate the effects of problems.
4. Nature of engagement
Bosses assign or delegate tasks and monitor results closely. A leader may exhibit a more direct approach and present themselves as an integral part of the team. Their involvement enthuses the team and motivates members to collaborate effectively.
5. Motivating factors
Numbers can motivate a boss, as they may work to achieve every standard set by the organisation they work for. They may also work to encourage their team members, but this may not be a requirement for the role, depending on the company and the exact position. Often, a leader is motivated by the values that drive performance and lead to excellence. Though they keep the organisation's goals within sight, they typically focus more on values rather than specific figures.
Bosses, being subject-matter experts, may focus on current achievements rather than growth. Leaders may engage in self-criticism more frequently to consistently identify areas for improvement. They also help their team members to improve in all aspects related to career development and professional performance.
7. Interpersonal skills
These professionals may use different character traits to succeed in their roles. A boss may focus on developing confident decision-making skills to perform administrative and managerial tasks. Leaders may develop empathy and compassion to build relationships with their team members.
These professionals may use different strategies to complete their daily tasks. A boss may follow company policies and a traditional hierarchy to delegate responsibilities. A leader often uses a more liberal structure with flexible power dynamics to encourage conversations between team members.
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