What’s the Difference Between A Boss & A Leader? [5 Tips]

While crafting a welcome packet for our annual virtual convention, HR Virtual Summit, we realized we were missing an official description for one of the BambooHR company values, “Lead from Where You Are.” That came as a surprise, especially considering how critical we feel this value is to our growth, our culture of shared responsibility, and the way our company structure has evolved over time.

During our discussion, we reflected on the difference between authority and leadership, or more concretely, the difference between a leader and a boss. Just looking at the two words a little more critically makes it clear there’s a difference.

After all, how different does “Boss from Where You Are” sound compared to “Lead from Where You Are”?

But if that’s the case, why does it often seem that people in positions of authority believe the two concepts are equivalent? They express confusion when their title doesn’t automatically inspire devotion, and they become frustrated when projects take longer than estimated or don’t meet their expectations. They might blame poor process or inattention to detail, or even a lack of respect. However, it’s more likely the reason is poor leadership.

What is Authority?

Authority, whether given, earned, or taken, is the right to make and enforce decisions. A general has the authority to send an army into battle. Doctors have the authority to prescribe medical treatment. Likewise, your boss probably has the authority to hire, direct, promote, and fire you, but you also have the authority to decide whether or not you want to work for them.

Authority is the right to use power, but it is not the same as power. A bully doesn’t have the authority to take your lunch money, and using their power to do so does not give them that right. Likewise, while you have the authority to decide to quit working, your financial situation or some other reason may leave you feeling powerless to exercise that right.

How do you identify a bad boss? Check out this infographic to see how!

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What is Leadership?

Leadership, on the other hand, is the ability to lead people. It’s not power, although leadership can make an individual very powerful. It’s not authority, either, although showing strong leadership can often lead to a position of authority. Leadership is a personal quality that some people seem to have innately, but that anyone can develop within themselves. And a good leader can accomplish more than someone with equal or even greater authority.

What’s The Difference Between Leaders & Bosses

There’s no scientific formula to compare a leader vs a boss, but think of it this way:

Being a boss doesn’t grant you devotion, nor does it inspire those around you. It only grants you the power to enforce your directions. But a good leader doesn’t need that power; they simply set the example for people to follow. Bosses give orders and observe, while leaders can be found in the middle of the effort, working hard, encouraging their colleagues, solving issues, and shouldering responsibility. Leaders lift from within like a strongman carrying a Volkswagen with no engine, championing the team effort, recognizing great work, and advocating on behalf of the team in the face of critics.

Authority is the position; leadership is the character of the player.

Authority doesn’t grant you automatic devotion, nor does it inspire those around you. It lends you the power to give orders, but a good leader realizes their role involves much more than giving orders and observing the results.

Worried you’re a bad boss? Check out our Bad Boss Index to see how you stack up against the worst of the worst.

5 Tips to Help You Become a Leader (Not a Boss)

So, let’s say you’re in charge of a team. You have authority, and you have the power to enforce it. But like many newly-minted managers, you might have been put in charge based on your performance, not on your leadership skills. So, how can you inspire people to do great work? By being a leader instead of a boss. Here are some ways to do that:

1) Relinquish The Throne

Instead of giving orders from on high, take responsibility for the team’s mission and ask for their help as you work towards your collective goal. Rather than passively observing, participate. Jump in with both feet and make your work the benchmark, then help others reach it. Don’t worry; you’ll keep your title. What’s more important is that you’ll earn it in the eyes of those who work alongside you.

2) Teach What You Know

Presumably, you were given your authority thanks in part to your experience and knowledge. Use your knowledge to inspire and empower, not as a way to establish superiority or hold out as a badge of rank. Think of information as a force multiplier instead of a finite resource. Spreading knowledge doesn’t weaken you—it makes the whole team more powerful and effective.

How do you identify a bad boss? Check out this infographic to see how!

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3) Be Humble

You don’t have all the answers, and you can’t do all the work yourself. Furthermore, if you think you can fake humility, you’re wrong—people can tell. When your team completes a project, you may be tempted to take credit. Don’t. You’ll get enough credit—more, in fact—if you highlight the group effort, and your team will appreciate the recognition. When a problem comes your way, ask your team for advice before you make a decision. Then make the decision and say why you did.

4) Give and Take Feedback Constantly

Leaders know they aren’t perfect, and they understand that nobody else is perfect, either. That’s why great leaders ask for and embrace feedback. Leaders also know that constant feedback, delivered the right way, is the best way to encourage good work, provide guidance, and create connections with their teammates.

5) Create Lasting, Two-Way Relationships

Effective leaders know and love their people. When the time comes for swift action, the example they’ve set and the relationships they’ve built allow them to direct with authority, because they’ve earned that authority through mutual respect. The people who work with a true leader trust that their best interests are being accounted for, and that trust gives them the confidence to work hard and be creative.

Don’t expect to lead simply because someone gave you a title or some authority. The best thing you can do is to forget the title and work alongside your colleagues; if you’re worthy—if you earn the respect and trust of your team—you’ll become their leader, and the title will return to you as a gift. When it does, you’ll realize a title received any other way is worthless except as an opportunity to prove you deserve it. Authority is just the position. Leadership is the character of the player.