The difference between being a boss and being a leader

Let’s talk about my softball coach. She had a sign on her wall that said,

“Because I’m the coach, and I said so!”

I developed very few leadership skills that spring. I wasn’t allowed to make any decisions—regardless of how small. My coach was the boss and what she said was how it went.

Not only did our team have a losing record, but we lacked energy, not to mention a sense of “team” or purpose. Worst fo all, we weren’t empowered to make mistakes and learn from them.

I’m guessing you’ve probably had a coach, teacher, manager, or parent like that too. Being a leader and being a boss are not the same thing. Depending on how you define them, they might actually work against each other. That feels counterintuitive, but I’m here to shed light on the differences.

Why “boss” doesn’t work anymore

The word “boss” originates from the Dutch word “baas,” which means “overseer” or “master,” and is rooted in the era of American slavery. If that doesn’t want to make you strike the word from your vocabulary right now, I’m not sure what will.

Putting the origin of the word aside, I can understand why some people want to be “a boss” or the boss. It’s tempting to run your company or team with a “my way or the highway” mentality. It can feel more efficient and gives you a superficial sense of control. But here’s why you may want to reconsider that mindset: according to a 2019 survey completed by the staffing agency Robert Half, 49% of those surveyed cited leaving a job because of a bad boss. If a business is losing nearly half of its employees because of people in charge, the primary impact those “leaders” are having is a negative one—on the bottom line.

Real leaders look much different from “bosses.” They think about mistakes differently, they’re honest, and they’re focused on a vision for the business—not micromanagement. As a leader in your organization, changing your mindset from boss to leader will go a long way toward creating a positive work environment where everyone is valued and allowed to grow.

So let’s start this conversation by throwing two things out: the word “boss” and the “what I says, goes” mentality. From there, we’ve got five suggestions to help you make the shift from boss to leader.

Find opportunities, not weaknesses.

There’s a subtle but important difference between pointing out where your employees fail and identifying opportunities for them.

Here’s a real-life illustration.

A boss would say:

“You handled that incorrectly.”

A leader, on the other hand, would say,

“I see an opportunity for you to grow. Let’s talk about it together.”

The first response is maybe what goes through your head, but it puts an employee on the defensive. The latter response invites a conversation, whether that’s in the moment or in a scheduled performance evaluation. Employee mistakes are opportunities for you to pinpoint where to focus your coaching and mentorship for each of your team members.

But what about the timing of these conversations? I worked for a business owner who was honest and direct, and immediately addressed performance issues with employees (literally within minutes). But on the other hand, he never provided regular performance reviews. I saw firsthand that nipping things in the bud did work, but because he never supplemented this with regular, set conversations, his methods made him feel more like a boss.

Addressing performance should be both/and—in-the-moment coaching as well as a regular evaluation schedule that you set, whether that’s weekly, monthly, or yearly. This balance creates a daily culture of learning while also providing opportunities for your employees to be thoughtful about their performance and provide you with valuable feedback. Meaningful check-ins and one-on-ones have a considerable impact on your team.

When it comes to those scheduled reviews, have employees evaluate themselves and let them lead the conversation—your strongest employees will likely identify the same strengths and opportunities that you’ve written down.

There are great self-assessment guides out there, and a great starting framework is having employees reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, core values, accomplishments, goals, and feedback.

Lead by letting go.

I can’t say enough about the importance of letting your employees fail. Allowing your employees opportunities to make their own mistakes has a direct correlation to their sense of accountability and ownership within your business or team, not to mention that mistakes often drive innovation.

When it comes to mistake-making, your first responsibility as a leader is to help your team learn from, own, and fix their mistakes.

Be upfront about your expectations:

“I’m absolutely thrilled you’re taking this on; I expect you to be honest about when you need help or make a wrong turn so that we can continue to improve.”

Your second responsibility is to put decisions and processes in place to keep the mistakes from happening again.

Give direction and the expectations, and then let things go. This expresses your trust and grows employee confidence. And there’s something incredible that the brain does when we work to resolve mistakes. I couldn’t have said it better than Edutopia’s Editor Youki Terada:

“The human brain is agnostic…and makes good use of the data—mistakes are crucial pieces of information that force a cognitive reckoning, pushing the brain to reconcile contradictory information and build more accurate, durable solutions.”

Here’s the psychological truth about mistake-making: if you have a great accountability process in place, and create an environment where mistakes are seen as opportunities, then the brain does the work of handling the mistake in a sensational way—you and your employees will improve your business processes as a result.

Have the long game in mind.

A word on micromanaging: micromanagers, by definition, don’t have the time or energy to be visionaries and leaders because they are too busy being concerned with exactly how and when tasks are getting done. And overmanaged people expend all their energy on protecting themselves and their jobs rather than on collaboration.

Side-by-side training is important when you are doing things like teaching a new skill or explaining a new process, but the urge to micromanage comes from a lack of trust, so get to the root of that by asking yourself a few great questions, like:

  • “Have I seen a pattern of mistakes or unfinished work?”
  • “Have I clarified my expectations and trained everyone properly, or do I need to do that again?”
  • “Am I bringing bias into my relationship with this person? Why is that?”

Then, get down to strategic business. Your goals should follow the SMART framework:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant, and
  • Time-bound.

You should consider short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals as you plan strategically for your business or team. And there’s a great guide for that.

Prioritize honesty.

If you’re hiding the truth—whether that’s your business processes, the reasons behind your policies, your overall numbers, or the mistakes you’ve made—there’s probably some fear driving that. Leadership coaches cite three different types of dishonesty in leaders: imposter syndrome (I’m faking it), arrogance (I’m better than…), and dominance avoidance (I don’t want to dominate, so I won’t lead).

Figure out why you’re afraid. Are you afraid to show your business numbers because your employees might think you’re a failure? Are you afraid to admit you made a mistake because you’re practicing arrogance? Is your team ineffective because you’re avoiding a healthy confrontation?

There are two consequences of dishonest leaders: the mistakes get bigger, and the company culture stays anemic.

Where can you be more honest? Honesty can only be endemic to your business culture if it starts from the top. Employees simply cannot establish this for you.

Build community and consensus with your other managers.

If your business is big enough to include other managers, this last tip is for you. Your managers are your biggest stakeholders. If they aren’t emulating your leadership, it will undermine your business culture.

As you consider how you build consensus with your management team, see this as an opportunity to self-evaluate just like you ask your employees to do:

  • What are my expectations of my management team?
  • Does everyone understand what my expectations are?
  • Do we share the same purpose?
  • Do I need to assign specific roles and specific expectations to certain people?
  • Who are those people, and what are those roles?
  • Are there disagreements among my management team? What are they?
  • If we don’t meet regularly, should we? How often should we meet?

And quite simply, one of the best things you can do with your management team before you start tackling all the answers to these questions is to do something, together, outside work. Share a meal—share your common humanity. We need so much more of that, and it goes a long way once you’re back in the office.

Here’s the bottom line: it’s never too late to transform yourself from a boss to a leader. Your leadership style is not set in stone. Stick around the blog and check out more ways Ruby can help you improve and grow your business. Or start with our small business resource hub.