Terrell Strayhorn

The Difference Between a Boss and a Leader

I get this question a lot, especially from students and aspiring entrepreneurs. “What’s the difference between a boss and a leader?” As a former student leader, resident hall advisor (RA), and class trustee at my undergraduate alma mater, I’ve attended my fair share of leadership development conferences where high-profile speakers have waxed philosophical about “leadership as a service” or the difference between respect and fear. These experiences alone might qualify me to answer the main question, but I realized that my current perspective is shaped by a number of work experiences, including my recent work as an executive team LEADER striving daily to change a culture of BOSSING to leading.

There is a major difference between a boss and a leader. Some people use the terms interchangeably but there are significant differences. Bosses have positional authority, granted by where they fall on the organizational chart. Bosses manage people, make decisions, and can sometimes incite fear in employees with their mere presence. They may have a nice office, dedicated parking space, and handsome salary. But this may say little to nothing about their working relationships with staff, subordinates, peer leaders, and the broader community. Just because someone’s the boss, doesn’t mean they’re the leader.

Leaders, however, have personal respect plus positional authority, which makes them a force to be reckoned with. Leaders, like bosses, get positional authority from where they fall in the hierarchical “pecking order,” but leaders also enjoy respect from peers and subordinates who trust them, value their ideas, and care about them as people. Leaders motivate and inspire, quite often through role-modeling. Leaders don’t ask employees to do something they wouldn’t do (or haven’t already done). Leaders might make decisions but they use a far-more collaborative—dare I say, democratic—process that welcomes input, feedback, challenge, and group ownership.

Yes, there’s a clear difference between bosses and leaders in my opinion. Leaders listen, bosses boss. Leaders give opportunities and optimism; bosses give orders. Leaders take initiative; bosses take credit. Leaders may also have a nice office, dedicated parking space, and big salary, but their most precious commodity is non-monetary: the respect, support, and commitment of employees who look up to you, trust you (and your decisions), care about you because they know you care about them, and want to see you and the team win! We need more leaders, not bosses. #GoTeam #TeamUs #Team28