Anyone can be a boss. For most of us, the choice to be a Leader takes us on a journey of self-discovery and growth. The choice can make a difference between effective, influential leadership that will impact high performance or the choice to remain in the business as usual approach of management. Which path will you take?

What Is the Difference Between a Leader vs a Boss? 

So what’s the difference between a leader vs a boss? Being a boss is easy. Being a boss just means you have power and authority–you can tell people what to do. The boss has authority that’s given to them or granted them by whoever gave them that position–it could even be themselves if they’re the founder. 

The difference between a leader vs a boss is that a leader is one who inspires others and creates those who follow by their own free will. People follow a leader not because of their authority or rank, but because they believe in them, have admiration, and are inspired by what they are doing.

Female business leader smiling towards the camera

Anyone can be a leader, regardless of their position or level of authority, because anyone in an organization can lead their team forward and inspire their colleagues. What does that really mean?

What Does it Mean to Be a Leader?

At the Sasquatch music festival in 2009, the attendees were all sitting on the hill listening to music. Then one crazy guy stood up and started dancing. For a long time, he was just this one crazy guy on the hill dancing by himself, then other people joined him. Then more and more people joined him until it became a mass dance on the hillside. People were excited and connected, it became an entirely new experience than before.

That’s the essence of being a leader. A leader is someone who takes an action that might be scary and vulnerable, yet creates a place where other people choose to follow. That’s the big test.

Leading Beyond Change

Leaders Evolve First 

One primary difference between leaders vs bosses is that leaders take personal responsibility for their evolution and that of the organization. When considering the gap between where an organization or a department is and where it might be, a boss thinks, “How do I fix my people? How do I get them to change?” A leader thinks, “How can I change? How can I grow and evolve? How can I inspire?”

The sign of a true leader is that they focus on their own growth first. In doing so, they become a role model for learning and evolution. Creating a high-performance organization requires that leaders evolve first.

The secret we tell people in leadership positions is, “If you spot a behavior you don’t like in other people, look at how you’re exhibiting that behavior yourself. Where can you grow around that dimension of leadership?” 

Qualities of Effective Leaders

Ultimately there’s only one quality or only one observable phenomenon that defines if someone is a leader vs a boss: whether there are people willingly choosing to follow you. The proof is in the pudding. With that said, here are some characteristics that good leaders tend to exhibit. 

Woman explaining business details to her coworkers

1. Leaders Care About the People Around Them

Oftentimes, bosses get promoted because they’re focused on achieving goals. While that’s great for short-term success, in order to create long-term success, it’s vital to actually care about the people. Leaders understand that results come from people, and when they take care of the people, they’ll take care of the results.

2. Leaders Listen

Richard Branson once said, “No one learned anything by talking.” Listening is a superpower. If you want to learn and understand what’s happening with the people around you, the only possible way to do that is to truly listen. 

Listening is not an easy skill. To truly listen without an agenda is a crucial element needed for success. When we genuinely listen, we can actually understand what’s happening around us and can take effective action. One of the best ways to tell the difference between a leader vs a boss is by observing how much they listen and how much they talk.

3. Leaders Are Emotionally Clear

One of the most important aspects of a leader is that they’re emotionally clear. We all experience a range of emotions throughout the day. Positive emotions uplift everyone around us. When we experience negative emotions like fear, anxiety, or frustration, our bodies tighten up and everyone around us can feel that. Let’s look at an example of how a leader vs a boss’s emotional state can affect their employees.

leader vs boss concept - people smiling in office

Say you have a project team in crisis, and the boss walks in. Everyone tightens up and experiences fear. They stop talking. The boss issues questions and gets short replies back. But when a leader walks in, they say, “Hey everyone, it’s okay. Don’t panic. We’ll figure this out somehow. Let’s just work together to figure out how to solve it. What ideas do people have?” People come to life and start brainstorming. Not only does this help solve the problem, but people’s level of psychological safety also goes up.

This ties in with our book Emotional Science, which we created to help people get a much deeper understanding of their emotional systems. It contains a technology that goes beyond the usual understanding of emotions and can support leaders in developing the ability to be emotionally clear most of the time.

4. Leaders Have Compassion for Others

A typical boss’ view is, “Why aren’t they getting this done on time? This thing was due already, why are they only asking for help right now?” These judgments can be devastating because everyone can feel the energy coming at them even if the boss doesn’t say anything.

For a leader, patience and compassion are essential. When a leader is patient, they’re able to really listen and ask, “Where are they coming from? What’s getting in the way of them being successful? How can I help them grow and develop to continue on their growth journey so that they can be more successful going forward?” 

wooden blocks displaying trust and truth letters

5. Leaders Speak the Truth

Leaders lead with truth. The truth, when said with compassion and understanding, will increase trust. The dimensions of truth-telling are being authentic and having candor. 

Being authentic means that people get what they see. You don’t have a hidden agenda. You say what’s going on. When you feel an emotion, you express it. This builds a sense of connection, trust, and safety.

The other dimension that’s very important is about having candor. A lot of bosses build lists in their heads of things employees are doing wrong but never communicate these until it’s too late. A leader immediately has a conversation with an employee, from a place of both candor and compassion. 

6. Leaders Celebrate Others’ Success and Build Leaders

A great leader builds other leaders around them. Celebrating others is an essential part of that. What that means is, instead of thinking, “How can I make myself look good?” a leader considers, “How can I make everyone else look good? How can I celebrate the things that other people are doing?” 

People laughing during a business meeting

It could be a high five or a thank you. It could be sending an email to the whole team saying, “Hey, so and so did this. I just want to recognize their accomplishment. Thank you so much for what you were able to do, it really made a difference.”

Leadership: It’s a Choice

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” – Shakespeare. 

Leadership is for those who are interested in achieving greatness and living your fullest potential. It’s a daily choice that leads to a never-ending journey of discovery and growth. We call this Evolutionary Leadership – the choice to evolve both one’s inner state of being and one’s ability to interact in more effective ways. The moment you stop looking at how to lead more effectively is the moment where your leadership starts to fail. 

At SHIFT314, we are committed to our continual growth in service of our mission to evolve the world of work. We hope that you also chose this path and that together we can create a better world. Are you ready to be an Evolutionary Leader?

Leading Beyond Change