Leader Versus Boss: What’s the Difference?

Leader Versus Boss: What’s the Difference?


The terms boss and leader are often used interchangeably to define managers, project leads, and executives. An important lesson early in your career is that boss and leader have different connotations.

The term boss is usually associated with a strong personality who focuses on business outcomes rather than relationships. Leaders take measured and holistic approaches to relationships, business practices, and communications. Olympian Klaus Balkenhol offered the following distinction:

“There is a difference between being a leader and being a boss. Both are based on authority. A boss demands blind obedience; a leader earns his authority through understanding and trust.”

You can succeed in the present and grow in the future by being a good leader every day. To become a leader, though, you need to know how employees view bosses and leaders.


leader vs. boss

Leader vs. Boss: Definitions

A helpful starting point in distinguishing between bosses and leaders is to define our terms. Dictionary definitions of each term show areas of overlap but fundamental differences.

Merriam-Webster’s definitions for the term boss include:

  • “A person who exercises control or authority”
  • “To give usually arbitrary orders to"

The dictionary defines a leader as “a person who has commanding authority or influence.” Merriam-Webster uses the following examples to bring the word leader to life:

  • “A person who directs a military force or unit”
  • “A party member chosen to manage party activities in a legislative body”
  • “A first or principal performer of a group”

We see a clear difference between bosses and leaders. A boss exercises control, while a leader commands authority. In short, a boss uses their power freely and a leader derives legitimacy from the support of their subordinates.


leader public view

Leader vs. Boss: Public Views

Google Trends show that searches for the term boss outpaced the term leader from 2015 to 2020. Movies and TV shows like Boss Baby and Undercover Boss showed the ubiquity of the term boss. Google’s data also reveals that the world needs leaders like you to reach the job market.

Surveys of American workers show general frustrations with bosses. Randstad US found 58% of survey respondents would trade lower salaries for better bosses. Researcher Michelle McQuaid’s survey highlights the impacts of poor leadership skills on workers:

  • 36% of workers reported happiness with their work
  • 42% of workers said their bosses don’t work as hard as their subordinates
  • 65% of workers said better bosses would improve their work environments

Pew Research Center dug deeper to show different perceptions of work among bosses and employees. These perception gulfs included:

  • Thinking of job as a career (78% of bosses, 44% of employees)
  • Having education and training needs to succeed (73% of bosses, 57% of employees)
  • Receiving fair pay for work (62% of bosses, 54% of employees)
  • Searching for another job at present (12% of bosses, 23% of employees)

These sobering statistics are opportunities for business leaders to collaborate with workers. When taking a leadership position, you can figure out what your employees need and how they work best. Building a skill set befitting a leader improves employee satisfaction and business outcomes.


valuable leadership skills employees

Valuable Leadership Skills According to Employees

A leader balances interpersonal and business skills in the service of long-term goals. The easiest way to set goals and evolve as a leader is to listen to employees. Front-line workers see the positives and areas of improvement of leadership initiatives on a daily basis.

Employee surveys are used by most companies to evaluate performance and career goals. We need to focus on surveys that ask employees what they need from leaders to succeed. The most successful leaders don’t view employees as means to ends but invaluable assets.

Setting Goals as a Leader

LinkedIn conducted a survey on the future of leadership involving 14,000 employees and leaders. The two primary challenges facing leaders based on the survey are futurizing and humanizing work. As a leader, you should heed the survey’s steps toward both goals:

  • To futurize: Think long term, adapt to technology, keep pace with change, and avoid status quo
  • To humanize: Lead diverse teams, reskill and upskill employees, retain talent, do good, and make the organization people-centered

Respondents weren’t looking for leaders who barked orders and used rigid guidelines to dictate work. The central finding of LinkedIn’s survey was that every leader needed to be caring and purpose-driven. Responding to the following trends allows you to become a successful leader:

  • 52% of millennial workers place emphasis on good values over high salaries
  • 51% of employees want inspiring and engaging leaders
  • 51% of employees don’t see these attributes in their leaders
  • 68% of employees believe they exhibit these attributes on a regular basis

Your interpersonal skills won’t just be put into practice with current employees. Forty-five percent of respondents viewed talent attraction and retention as a major hurdle to leadership success. Proving your skills as a leader keeps talented employees in the fold and brings in new and unique talents.


leader improve

Leaders Recognize When They Need to Improve

A leader knows that every office, department, and company changes over time. Standing still is falling behind as companies always look toward innovative products and new ways to inspire employees.

An Interact/Harris Poll of 1,000 employees revealed significant gaps between employee expectations and leadership skills. Ninety-one percent of respondents identified effective communications as a missing skill in their leaders.

Knowing how to communicate equally well to different stakeholders sets a leader apart from a run-of-the-mill boss. Rounding out the biggest skill deficits in the poll were:

  • Lack of recognition for employee achievements (63%)
  • Lack of clear directions (57%)
  • Insufficient time for meetings between a leader and their employees (52%)
  • Accepting credit for employee ideas (47%)
  • Lack of constructive feedback (39%)

You might be curious how to turn these deficits into assets when you become a leader. Interact CEO Lou Solomon took these results and suggested:

  • Use specific praise that highlights the employee’s role in successes
  • Get creative, personal, and public with kudos for employees
  • Open and use multiple channels for employee feedback
  • Show you are a person with flaws who makes mistakes

Solomon’s interpretation of survey data shows humility is an essential trait for every leader. Combining strong business acumen with an admission that we all improve through collaboration makes for a successful leader.


leader listen

Listening to Employees as a Leader

The standard employee assessment process is often insufficient to learn about leadership deficits. Software company Salesforce grew into a $143 billion company through creative engagement with employees.

Every leader at Salesforce is evaluated twice per year as part of the employee assessment process. Employees are asked about their happiness, their stress levels, and relationships with managers and supervisors. The results are not hidden from view on company servers; rather, ratings for each leader are available to all employees.

Salesforce designed this evaluation process to meet the following goals:

  • Anticipate and respond to employee dissatisfaction with less lag time
  • Highlight successful leadership initiatives as examples to other leaders
  • Allocate resources to leaders who didn’t fare well on employee surveys

For employees, the Salesforce assessment model breaks through departmental silos. A designer, accountant, or customer service representative can find a leader that fits their career goals. Salesforce managers and executives learn how their efforts impact employees and the correct pivots toward caring leadership.


valuable leadership skills leader

Valuable Leadership Skills According to Leaders

Employees are the most important resource for learning how to be a better leader on a daily basis. Every leader should listen to other leaders to set their values compass in the long term.

Dr. Sunnie Giles asked 195 leaders in 30 international organizations about their most valued leadership competencies. Giles broke the most valued competencies into five categories:

  • Strong ethics & safety
  • Self-organizing
  • Efficient learning
  • Nurturing growth
  • Connection and belonging

These categories were developed because of clear patterns found in participant responses. The following responses form the ideal profile of a corporate leader:

  • High ethical and moral standards (67%)
  • Setting goals with employee freedom to create (59%)
  • Clear communication of expectations (56%)
  • Intellectual flexibility to adjust views and opinions (52%)
  • Commitment to continued professional development (43%) 

Global executives recognize that a leader should set the course, listen, and adjust as necessary. We can confirm this profile using a decade-long study by Google into the traits necessary to succeed as a leader.


good leader

What Makes a Good Leader: Google Data

Google evaluated its own managers, project leads, and supervisors as part of its Project Oxygen research. The company pursued long-term research to produce enough data to support their leadership development programs.

An important conclusion of Project Oxygen was that a leader required far less technical abilities than interpersonal skills. A leader who achieves high employee satisfaction and performance is:

  • A good coach
  • A resource to empower employees
  • An inclusive connector
  • A results-oriented producer
  • A good communicator
  • A talent developer
  • A visionary strategist
  • A technical advisor
  • An effective collaborator
  • A decisive decision-maker

Google’s 10 traits for a good leader show how the tech giant has become a household name. The company’s leaders modeled these traits enough over a decade to create a clear path to success.


servant leadership

Servant Leadership as the Solution

Developing a leadership skill set is important for success but incomplete without the right values. An important concept in today’s business climate is servant leadership. The origins and evolution of servant leadership show how its practitioners get the most out of their employees.

The Servant as Leader

Robert K. Greenleaf worked at AT&T when he realized that top-down corporate bureaucracies alienated workers. In 1964, he founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership to advocate for a revolutionary view of business management.

In a 1970 essay titled “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf laid out the need for a new approach to leadership:

“A fresh critical look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways. A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.”

Greenleaf saw the best leaders as those who are servants first. He offers questions that separate servant leaders from other leaders and bosses:

  • “Do those served grow as persons?”
  • “Are we listening to the one with whom we want to communicate?”
  • “In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?”

A servant leader is thoughtful, measured, and considerate of how their employees, customers, and colleagues grow. Greenleaf’s vision of servant leadership continues to expand as new generations take these lessons to heart.


servant leader

The Servant Leader in the 21st Century

Business consultants and experts have made servant leadership mainstream in the past 50 years. S. Chris Edmonds offered a current interpretation of servant leadership in his book The Culture Engine.

To Edmonds, a servant leader believes every person deserves civility, trust, and respect because of their inherent value. Another guiding principle is that people achieve more when their goals extend beyond their own needs.

The Culture Engine details five acts that can be done regularly to model servant leadership:

  • Clarify and reinforce the need for service to others
  • Listen intently and observe closely
  • Act as selfless mentors
  • Demonstrate persistence
  • Lovingly hold themselves and others accountable for their commitments

Greenleaf and Edmonds provide a path forward for anyone who wants to become a servant leader. You can distinguish yourself as a leader by elevating others and providing support to good ideas and actions.


servant leader behavior example

Examples of Servant Leader Behavior

Servant leadership runs up against decades of competing theories that prioritize power and profits over people. The tide is shifting toward selfless leadership as businesses become more transparent. You can use the following case studies to inform your efforts to become a servant leader.

Cheryl Bachelder and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Bachelder became the CEO of Popeyes in 2007 after a long career in fast-food company leadership. The company was a struggling brand at the time with frequent CEO changes and poor sales performance. She was appointed after serving on a CEO selection board that saw multiple candidates bow out of consideration.

In her decade as CEO, Bachelder turned Popeyes into a popular national brand. She engaged previously neglected franchise owners in a unified plan to engage customers. The company recruited new franchisees and considered how each franchise impacted its community.

Popeyes invested back into franchises that previously saw their relationship with corporate as a one-way street. As a leader, Bachelder took the following view on how to collaborate with others:

“The Popeyes turnaround has become a case study in what happens when leaders think about serving others — in this case, our franchisees. Leadership is an act of stewardship, not a practice that’s solely for your personal benefit. The test of our leadership is simple: Are the people entrusted to our care better off?”


southwest airlines

Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines

Kelleher helped found the low-cost airline in the late 1960s and served as its CEO and chairman from 1981 to 2001. Southwest has been touted as a great place to work by publications like Fortune. Kelleher helped the airline stay ahead of the competition by acting as a servant leader.

He once said, “I’d rather have a company bound by love than a company bound by fear." During his tenure, Southwest infused day-to-day work with the Eight Freedoms including:

  • The freedom to learn and grow
  • The freedom to financial security
  • The freedom to create and innovate

Kelleher helped Southwest win customer acclaim by avoiding baggage and ticket change fees. The company’s flight staff enjoyed its choice of one airplane model to simplify training and maintenance. Kelleher also offered the following insight into his employee-first approach as a leader:

“In business school, they’d say, ‘This is a real conundrum: Who comes first, your employees, your shareholders, or your customers?’ My mother taught me that your employees come first. If you treat them well, then they treat the customers well, and that means your customers come back and your shareholders are happy.”


email marketing leader

Sameer Dholakia and SendGrid

Dholakia moved from software company Citrix to email automation company SendGrid in 2014. He brought lessons on selflessness and service learned from his mother as well as his professional life.

Dholakia devotes approximately 50% of his time at work to meetings with employees. He holds regular touch-bases that bypass agendas for listening sessions on employee needs. SendGrid employees are often asked how Dholakia can help them grow and serve customer needs.

SendGrid grew from a startup to a $3 billion acquisition by Twilio in 2018 thanks to Dholakia’s leadership. He told Forbes that his role as a leader was to boost his employees because:

“The folks doing the hard rowing of the business are not the CEO...I don’t have to take a phone call from a customer who’s upset about a bug. I don’t have a sales quota.”


ethical leader

Being an Ethical Leader

Another leadership philosophy that overlaps with the servant leader model is ethical leadership. An ethical leader places what is right for people above profits, growth, and other business outcomes.

Ethical leadership has been articulated only recently compared to the long shelf life of servant leadership. According to Y Scout, the most important traits of an ethical leader include:

  • An ongoing concern with justice
  • Respect for all
  • A commitment to honest communication
  • Humane decision-making
  • Developing communities out of teams

The difference between a servant leader and an ethical leader lies in scope. A servant leader concentrates on stewarding others to success. An ethical leader leads themselves and others toward moral goods.

As you can see, it is possible to be a leader who embodies both philosophies. Forbes published examples of how service-oriented companies used ethical behaviors to solve business problems:

Procter & Gamble’s We See Equal campaign to raise awareness of gender inequality
Baxter Credit Union’s focus on financial access in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria


st. bonaventure university

Become a Leader

Your interest in becoming a servant leader rather than a boss is an important first step in your career. Leaders are driven to help others succeed in their missions on a daily basis. The next step is turning your enthusiasm into real-world skills.

St. Bonaventure University’s Online Master of Arts in Leadership helps future leaders like you develop your clarity of purpose as a leader while building leadership skills centered around empowerment, compassion and service. This innovative program focuses on holistic views of business leadership that set you apart from your colleagues.

Graduates of the program possess insight, confidence, and clarity in their actions necessary for success in any professional setting. By completing the online Master of Leadership, you will be ready to communicate, mentor, and lead as a service-oriented leader.

Ready to become the next great business leader?


Get started with your online Leadership MA today.


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