• Toby Sinclair

Boss vs Leader: 10 Behaviour Differences


boss v leader banner

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou


Are you a boss or a leader?


A boss is typically someone who manages others through positional power.


If you are a boss it's easy to assume you are automatically a leader. However, not everyone who is a boss is a leader.


It's also easy to assume that being a boss is bad and everyone needs to be a leader. Different situations call for different responses. Sometimes you need to be the boss but in many cases leadership leads to better results for you and the team.


Contrasting the typical behaviours of a boss vs leader can help you reflect on your current situation. Do you behave more like a boss or a leader?


It's likely you are leading knowledge workers. These are creative people working to solve complex problems. If so, then it's likely leadership is needed more than the boss.


Here are 10 examples that contrast how a boss vs leader typically behave.


  1. A boss holds power. A leader gives it away.

  2. A boss chooses you. A leader is chosen by you.

  3. A boss manages. A leader leads.

  4. A boss commands. A leader coaches.

  5. A boss tells. A leader asks.

  6. A boss is rigid. A leader is flexible.

  7. A boss controls uncertainty. A leader embraces uncertainty.

  8. A boss dictates. A leader inspires.

  9. A boss focuses on deadlines. A leader focuses on outcomes.

  10. A boss assumes trust. A leader earns trust.


Each example is supported by my favourite boss vs leader quotes.


Boss vs Leader Infographic

1. A boss holds power. A leader gives it away.


A boss typically has positional power. They have an assigned status within an organisation, most commonly as a manager. They will usually have people reporting to them in the organisational hierarchy.


A leader may not have positional power in the organisation. They may not directly manage the people they are leading. Leaders lead through influence. A big part of this is leading through clear communication and acting as a role model. Rather than hoard power leaders use their influence to help others succeed. They believe that in helping others they help themselves. This principle is explored in Give and Take by Adam Grant.


2. A boss chooses you. A leader is chosen by you.


People don't usually choose their boss. Their boss is assigned to them. This is often an indicator of a boss vs leader. However, some organisations do enable employees to choose their managers.


You cannot force someone to follow you. In fact, when people are coerced into following someone it's usually a boss, not a leader.


This boss v leader quote highlights this example:

"Leadership is not something that can be bestowed. It must be earned. People must want to follow you."

Julie Zhuo - The Making of a Manager


When you are a boss be aware that people might follow you through compliance. Bosses who lead are aware of this dynamic. Focus on building trust and communicating to your employee their choices in following you.


3. A boss manages. A leader leads.


A boss is a masterful manager. They take pride in structure, organisation and managing all the pieces of the puzzle. They feel good when everything is in control and they have management of the situation. When things need managing bosses can be a great asset.


A leader demonstrates leadership which is the skill of being able to guide and influence other people. A leader masters leadership skills such as communicating vision, listening, asking questions and self-awareness.


A leader will often aim to build a self-managing team.


4. A boss commands. A leader coaches.


The contrast between Boss vs Leader is shown in leadership styles.


A boss typically uses a command and control leadership style. Also known as an autocratic leadership style.


Command and Control leaders tend to lead by the directive. They tell and you follow. This is based upon a belief that for people to act they must be told. It's often easy to adopt this style if you have more experience than your direct reports. When you are seen as the expert it's easy for you to think you must tell people what to do.


This style of leadership is not always bad. The problem is that bosses are often bossy about the wrong things:


Error is assuming the problem with command and control is about bosses being bossy. The problem is control measures. This means that bosses are bossy about the wrong things!

John Seddon - Beyond Command and Control

A lender typically uses a range of leadership styles based upon context. The dominant style tends to be a coaching style of leadership.


The coaching leadership style is based upon the belief that the people you are leading hold the answers. The leaders' role is not to tell but to unlock the answers within the team. This manifests in the leader asking more than telling. This is done by asking coaching questions that enable the team to think more clearly.

In the past, a leader was a boss. Today's leaders must be partners with their people... they no longer can lead solely based on positional power.

Ken Blanchard - One Minute Manager


5. A boss tells. A leader asks.


If you observe behaviours in your organisation you'll be able to identify the boss vs the leader. A simple way is to observe who asks and who tells. You might assume that leaders are those who do the telling. The reality is that the best leaders ask. They ask questions, not for their own benefit but to help people think with clarity.

Tell less and ask more. Your advice is not as good As you think it is.

Michael Bungay Stanier - The Coaching Habit


6. A boss is rigid. A leader is flexible.


It's easy to assume that being a leader deliver results in all situations. People who get results are able to apply situational leadership. There are times when being a boss is needed. A more directive, telling approach to leadership can often work well in simple situations. There is an obvious answer to the problem. Rather than asking it's often best to tell. For example, if a team member is unsure where to find a document it would be annoying to ask a question: "Where do you think the file is?" If you are working in complex volatile and uncertain environments it's likely most situations will be far from simple. The majority of situations will have some complexity.


It is in complex situations when leadership can be most effective. This is because no one person holds all the answers. The best results come from engaging the diversity of groups to solve complex problems. Leaders can help draw out these various perspectives and help the team integrate them into a way forward. The leader helps facilitate this thinking. A good example is if you are building a new product for your customers. There is never one right answer. It can be tempting if you have worked in the problem space before to tell the team what to do. The chances are this context has important differences from what you have encountered before. So if you assume it's the same it will likely result in failure. Instead, using coaching skills to help the team unlock the answers collectively will likely lead to better results.

Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.

Tony Robbins


7. A boss controls uncertainty. A leader embraces uncertainty.


It is human nature to want control. Especially in uncertain situations, we seek certainty. this can often manifest in controlling behaviour. The boss who hates uncertainty will adopt controlling behaviours. They'll typically micromanage situations and put pressure on their team.


In contrast, leaders embrace uncertainty as a natural reality of complex work. They work with uncertainty rather than against it.

I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.

Richard Feynman


8. A boss dictates. A leader inspires.


A boss will typically tell you what to do and how to do it. You are often left confused about the reason, the why for the action.


A leader in contrast spends the majority of time on the why. They understand that if the team deeply understand the why then that provides the rocket fuel for success. They trust the team to figure out the what and the how in alignment with the vision.

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

Antoine de Saint


9. A boss focuses on deadlines. A leader focuses on outcomes.


A boss is usually under pressure to hit deadlines. This manifests with a laser focus on hitting deadlines. you'll hear them talk about dates, deadlines and consequences.


A leader focuses on outcomes. What change do we want to create for our customers? They are willing to take the heat on missing dates if it's the right thing for the customer.


10. A boss assumes trust. A leader earns trust.


A boss assumes that because you report to them they have earned their trust. They'll often rely on past glory to convince you that they are worthy of your trust.


Leaders understand that trust can only be earned over time. They make deposits into your trust account by acting consistently and with respect. They seek ways to build your trust.

Leadership is the achievement of trust.

Peter Drucker


Boss vs Leader - What are you?


Reflecting on these 10 behaviours what are you? A boss or a leader?


You can develop your leadership by improving your coaching skills. When you become more comfortable with a coaching style of leadership you'll gain better outcomes.


There are three skills to master:

  • Asking coaching questions

  • Active listening

  • Self-Awareness

You can start to develop these skills today with Switch. A free 5-day email program to help you build a coaching habit.