Leadership Qualities

Are You a Boss or a Leader?

Bosses command, leaders influence.
Are You a Boss or a Leader?
Image credit: Chabruken | Getty Images
CEO, Co-Founder and Chief Storyteller of Menlo Innovations
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Excerpted from Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear by Richard Sheridan; foreword by Tom Peters, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Richard Sheridan, 2018.

Bosses have a trump card that leaders do not have. Bosses can do the thing that our parents did that drove us crazy as kids. They can respond to "Why?" with "Because I said so!"

Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader

People who influence positive and beneficial outcomes, without the hammer of "Because I said so!" at their disposal, are good leaders, whether they are bosses or not. Bosses who use a "Because I said so!" approach are not leaders. Bosses can have short, quick solutions to complex situations. Leaders are not afforded that luxury. A leader must leave openings for conversations.

A leader when asked "Why?" understands that the question deserves a thoughtful conversation. A team member asking why may be afraid, may be curious or may want to contribute ideas. Or they might not even ask a direct question but instead just make a quizzical face or look crestfallen when an idea is shot down. A leader's heart and mind must be open to all these possibilities and recognize that the person asking a question is a competent and caring team member and a peer, not a subordinate to be "managed."

A leader also considers that these questions represent opportunities to grow new leaders. Imagine, just for a moment, that the person asking why has spent a lot of time on their own thinking about the situation at hand. Perhaps they have an inspiring thought, but they don't know exactly how to express it because this leadership ground is new territory. They might have to muster the courage to bring their idea forward. They artfully waited for what they think is the right opening to raise a point, but they do it without finesse, as they are unpracticed in making persuasive arguments. This is a moment of great vulnerability. A leader empathizes and invites the conversation, both for the value of the conversation itself and the opportunity for growing a new leader.

If even a few of these interactions go wrong, a leader will assume the role of boss whether or not they want it. The spirit of a team member can be lost forever in these moments. Ironically, each time you lose a team member in this way, the boss's workload increases because one more set of able hands (along with a heart and a mind) is no longer available to help when really needed.

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

Does this mean those with authority should never make decisions without the consensus of those around them? Of course not. It is a lonely territory for leaders who are bosses (by decision or appointment) when sometimes there is no one else to turn to but yourself and God, and you need to make the best decision possible. These are often some of the most painful decisions you must make.

Let's dive into what it means to be a "boss." I think the key differentiator for the boss title is that it comes with some level of great responsibility. There may be legal or fiduciary responsibility, like that of being the CEO of a public corporation, or it may be that you are signing up for the visible results of an institution, whether you're the head coach of a football team or the president of a university. In these situations, if something goes wrong on your watch, you're to blame. If something goes really well, you might get credit. The blame-credit equation is nowhere near fifty-fifty.

This level of responsibility is the burden of being boss. As a former VP of a public company, and now as CEO of Menlo, I fully understand and empathize with the burdens of being a boss. Payroll, cash flow, liability, contractual obligations and employment law are very real for my co-founder and me.

Bosses are also on the hook to get things done: launch a product, grow a company, increase stock price to satisfy shareholders, win a championship. Most of those activities require other people to execute the work. Bosses have two choices at this point: "tell" or "influence." If they simply use their positional authority and power to get things done, they are a boss, plain and simple.

Related: 10 Books Every Leader Should Read to Be Successful

This can work and can sometimes work very well. These bosses can be kind, they can be compassionate, they can be understanding. But, when bosses "tell," employees are expected to listen and do what they're told. The less thinking the rank and file does, the better, in this situation. (There are certain circumstances when this approach is a really good idea; for example, if there is a fire, and the boss yells, "Get out!")

If these same bosses use their influence to get others excited about the goal, give their team the latitude to decide for themselves how to get to that goal, support them in whatever way they can and then get out of the way, they are using influence to lead a team of people to get those same activities done. In this case, bosses showcase trust, a belief in the competence of the people who work for them and an inherent desire to see people around them take responsibility for what needs to get done. In such cases, the boss is also a leader.

In these same situations, there may be an individual (or a set of individuals) on the team who has no positional authority whatsoever but sees an opportunity to influence those around them to get to the goal. If they do this well enough, people follow their lead because there is trust and belief that this person is worthy of following. If there is no explicit authority when this happens, this person is a leader. This kind of leadership doesn't require title, authority, seniority or tenure. It typically requires knowing people, both in a general sense and in a very specific sense; that is, knowing individuals and having a relationship with them. Trust is a necessary component of leadership.

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