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5 Ways to Be a Leader, Rather than a Boss

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

The words “boss” and “leader” are often used interchangeably. Some might even consider them synonymous. But the truth is that in the context of the workplace, they have very different meanings. Whether you have a boss, or you are the boss, it’s important to understand the distinctions between the two terms. As you grow in your career, you should consider whether you’d rather been seen as a boss or a leader by your direct reports.

The ability to distinguish yourself as a leader, rather than just a boss, can have a direct impact on your employees and your organizations. When bosses fail to display leadership qualities, it can result in high employee turnover. According to a study conducted in 2019 by Robert Half, nearly half of the professionals surveyed reported leaving a job because of a bad boss.

Being a leader rather than a boss is more critical than ever, especially during times of unpredictable change, and the rapid evolution of corporate culture. By the end of 2025, nearly three-quarters of the American workforce is predicted to be comprised of Millennials—a generation that is drastically reshaping company culture. Millennials value positive workplace environments. A recent study performed by Fidelity Reports that many millennials would even be willing to take a significant pay cut if it meant they could work at a job with a better environment.

Similarly, since the workforce has been forced to change and adapt due to the COVID-19 health crisis, workers are looking to their managers for leadership, support, and guidance. Simply being a “boss” is not enough in these tumultuous times.

If you want to ensure that you are  a true leader, rather than just a boss, here are 5 strategies for you to consider:

  1. Focus more on listening than talking. Bosses bark orders, point out mistakes, and never ask their employees for input. Leaders, on the other hand, create open conversations with their teams. They might have a few trusted peers that they turn to for advice, but they will always encourage their direct reports to approach them with any issues they might be having. This creates trust between the employees and their managers and also helps the manager to recognize problems before they escalate. By being open to feedback and employee input, leaders become revered, rather than feared.

  1. Always be willing to learn. A boss feels like they know everything, and they refuse to ask questions. Their mindsets cause them to believe that they achieved their position by being smarter than those around them, and they don’t believe there’s any room for improvement. And while acquiring a managerial role typically requires some skill and merit, you must remain open to growth and learning to truly be successful. Leaders can recognize how they might learn from their subordinates. For example, technology is always evolving, and many young workers may have a better grasp on the newest software, apps, or devices than older employees.

  1. Strive for sustainable solutions. When things go wrong, bosses are quick to place the blame on someone else. When a recurring problem is identified, they’re more interested in quick fixes than long term, sustainable, solutions. They often lack the leadership skills required to create effective change in the workplace. True leaders are not afraid to admit when they’re wrong, or when they’ve made a mistake. They work to inspire and empower their employees, which increases the probability that solutions and changes will be sustainable in the long run. By placing focus on motivation, innovation, and collaboration, leaders foster a positive, efficient, problem-solving, environment.

  1. Inspiration, not intimidation. Bosses tend to be very focused on maintaining standards. They care about productivity and profitability, and they will attempt to control their subordinates through intimidation. Leaders let their values and principles guide their actions. They have a vision for their organization, which they’ll share with those around them. Leaders aim to inspire, rather than intimidate, and they offer rewards to keep their direct reports motivated. When employees are inspired by a leader, rather than coerced by a boss, it can lead to a more innovative culture with increased buy-in and stronger teams.

  1. Encourage growth and development. To quote Simon Sinek, “A boss has the title, a leader has the people.” Leaders don’t just boss people around. They go the extra mile to become a mentor for their employees. They explain the “why,” behind each task, and how it contributes to the bigger picture. They invest in development opportunities and encourage their employees to grow. When you truly become a leader, your team members will never feel like they are stagnant. Instead, they will know they’re contributing to and having a substantial impact on your organization. In short, they will be inspired!


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