Everyone dislikes labels. They become the single most important defining characteristic of a person, and they connote certain things. Thus, when someone is labeled a “nerd,” we think of an incredibly smart person who is socially inept. Labeling someone a “boss” or a “leader” also has connotations.

The word “boss” conjures up images of an all-controlling, authoritarian figure who makes demands and then sits back and expects those demands to be met. The word “leader,” on the other hand, connotes someone who inspires others and uses influence to get things done, rather than demands and threats.

In the workplace, bosses can be leaders, and leaders can be bosses. So, the defining traits that we assign to each of these positions gets quite gray. But when someone is just a boss in the stereotypical way, things will go horribly wrong in an organization, and here’s why.

The Analogy of the Classroom

Because all of us have had many years in school, we have also had a lot of experience with teachers who were bosses and teachers who were leaders. And we certainly know which type of teacher we liked better.

The “Boss” Teacher

This was the teacher who ran his/her classroom like an Army sergeant running basic training. Rules were strict. We sat quietly at our desks, all arranged in perfect rows (there were even some who marked the floor for the legs of those desks), listened to the “boss,” did what the boss commanded us to do, spoke only when told to, and suffered consequences with the least infraction.


We all left that classroom and breathed a sigh of relief that it was over for the day. Often, we did things to avoid it, like go to the nurse, or make an appointment with the counselor. The “boss” teacher operated from a position of power and ran a “tight ship.” We disliked him/her, and the more creative students found ways to “get back.”

The “Leader” Teacher

These were the classes we loved. Every day, activities were planned that had us engaged with one another and with our teacher. Desks were constantly re-arranged for projects and such; discussions replaced lectures; we were often given options and asked for our preferences. Noise and conversation was okay.

This teacher moved among us, individually and in groups, and coached, made suggestions, and encouraged. This teacher operated from a position of influence. We all wanted to do well and to behave because we genuinely liked him/her. Those teachers definitely had great leadership skills.

Fast Forward to the Workplace

Finally, formal education is over and you are looking for that first position.

You fill out applications, submit resumes and go for interviews. If you do not want to work for an organization that functions like that first classroom you hated, it will be important for you to get a “feel” for the atmosphere of the organization while you are there.

And pay attention to the interview questions, and to how the interviewer describes the organization. This may not give you a total idea of what you may be encountering, but if things re tense and the interviewer is focusing on things like tasks and deadlines, be wary.

A Boss or a Leader?

Here are the differences between a boss and a leader, and here is how you and your fellow co-workers will respond:

A Boss Rules With An Iron Fist, A Leader is Like a Coach

A boss “rules” with rather an iron fist and spends most of his/her time in that corner office. A leader, however, is like a sports coach. S/he is constantly present when his/her team is on the court or the field. Employees of a boss will develop no loyalty to him/her or to the organization. Employees of a leader, however, will develop loyalty and will work hard to meet expectations and deadlines.

Sports Coach

Bosses Threaten, Leaders Inspire

A threatening atmosphere is one of fear, and no one will tolerate that very long. Turnover in such situations will be high; employees will have a high rate of absenteeism. With an inspirational leader, however, employees feel enthusiastic about what they do. They enjoy being part of a team that enjoys coming to work and meeting goals and deadlines. Such a team will have low turnover and a low rate of absenteeism.

Bosses Deliver Commands. Leaders Discuss and Listen

In a climate of command-do, employees do not bring issues or problems forward. They try to depend upon one another, and mistakes will be made. When the climate is open to discussion, issues and problems are brought forth, and a leader will work with his team to resolve them. Fewer errors occur.

Bosses Don’t Know Their Employees, Leaders Know Their Team Members

If individual strengths and challenges are not understood, task delegation goes horribly wrong. And a boss is not there to coach and to assist when things do go wrong. Projects are not completed well or on time, and the boss then looks bad. He takes it out on employees with poor performance evaluations. People don’t stay in environments where they do not have successes.

Bosses Remain Aloof, Leaders Pitch In

Every project will have its challenges and low points. Not meeting a deadline becomes a possibility; the right resources are not provided to get the job done. Bosses make threats and retreat to their offices; leaders roll up their sleeves and become servants and assistants to their employees. They get the resources; they make adjustments; they listen. Employees feel honored and so they honor that leader by doing whatever it takes to meet a goal or deadline.

Bosses Take the Credit, Leaders Spread the Praise Around

This is a huge difference and it really matters to employees. Praise is a huge motivator; no recognition lowers morale, work ethic, and productivity.

Empathy is that ability to see things from another person’s perspective. Perhaps this is the one overriding difference between a boss and a leader. A boss who operates from the vantage point of power and authority has no empathy; a leader who operates by influencing and inspiring has empathy.

Employees are loyal to leaders; they will walk away from a boss as soon as they get the chance.

What Makes a Leader Different From a Boss?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Nicole Boyer
Nicole Boyer is a graphic and web designer. She is also a contributing blogger for several websites. Nicole believes that being a great leader will be success for any business. Connect with Nicole via Facebook, Google+ or her professional blog.