The Difference Between Being a Boss vs. Being A Leader

Many people have complained to their friends and family about a terrible boss, where the boss in question is often a day-to-day burden for the entire workplace. Perhaps the boss is quick to yell at his or her employees, endlessly criticizing them without providing any constructive feedback to consider. Or perhaps the boss is just an outright disorganized and stubborn-to-change employer. I can say from experience that having a bad boss truly takes a toll on your wellbeing.

But none of these “bad boss” tales seem to apply to our notion of a leader. Indeed, a leader seems inherently absolved from these terrible qualities. Why is that, and what is the true difference between a boss versus a leader?

Surely, the role of a boss versus the role of a leader has some overlapping responsibilities, such as solving problems at the workplace, reviewing workplace progress, etc. But the manner in which one executes such responsibilities makes a huge difference in whether they are exhibiting the qualities of a boss or a leader. Likewise, this has huge implications for the success of a company (or organization), the relationships taking place at work, and the subsequent mental health of both employer and employee. In other words, deciding whether you’re going to be a boss vs. a leader is incredibly important.

For example, a boss attempts to solve a problem at the workplace by telling their employee what to do…and that’s about as far as the attempt goes. This is usually along the lines of hey, don’t do that! You need to perform better. This may discourage a bad habit in the workplace, but it does little to prevent similar problems from occurring again, and it overall makes the employee feel like they are working for a tyrant.

A leader, on the other hand, coaches their employee on how to solve the problem. This would be more along the lines of hey, there is a more effective way to do that, let me teach you what seems to be working. This leadership approach is usually rooted in a dialogue discussing why the employee should act a certain way, and is almost always followed by if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. In turn, regardless of the task being instructed, the employer is not received as a tyrant-like boss. Instead, they are perceived as a teacher, a guide, an ally on the same mission – all qualities of a great leader.

As radio host, entrepreneur, keynote speaker and influencer, I understand the difference between being a boss versus a leader. I never want any of my staff to feel like they’re working for a tyrant. I lived many of my years as a troubled addict, though I later found sobriety and dedicated my professional pursuits to helping those with similar troubles. My story is instrumental to my leadership.

My Recovery & Advocacy for Leadership

Long before I was in a position to consider being a boss vs. a leader, I was facing obstacles that are all two common in the U.S. – addiction and homelessness. I spent much of my days at a homeless shelter in 12-step programs attempting sobriety. Then one day – Jan. 11th, 2013 – after all my past relapses, I found a path forward that worked for me. I committed to sobriety and have been clean since. In fact, I doubled down and now help others struggling with substance use disorder as a co-founder at The Robert Alexander Center For Recovery in Mount Washington Kentucky.  

Clearly, my background had a long lasting impact on how I choose to run my company. Spending nine months in a homeless shelter and recovery center in Kentucky is an experience that stays with you. Pertaining to our narrative of boss vs. leadership, this experience sparks a deep sense of humility and compassion for me. I’m blessed to have this position I’ve been put in.

Understanding & Responding to Conflict as a Boss vs. a Leader

Given that I’ve been through the thick of mental, physical, and logistical problems pertaining to drug addiction and homelessness, I am well aware that things won’t always go as planned. I utilize this understanding about life to my advantage as a leader, not a boss.

A boss gets mad when things don’t go as planned within their company. This is a fairly non-controversial statement, but it is actually quite problematic for the future of a company. For example, given that I understand that things won’t always go perfectly, I can avoid being blinded by frustration. Where the boss might go “ok, who did this?”, I might go “ok, what is at the core of the problem here?”

The staff of a company is blamed too often for what is actually an issue of disorganization and disruption on the employer level. Surely, employees will make a mistake when the company is disorganized. The boss simply criticizes the employee for their mistake, whereas the leader ponders why the mistake happened in the first place before resolving the conflict. I strive to be the latter.

Which brings us to a larger point – how does a boss understand and resolve conflict versus a compassionate leader? Every organization is going to have conflicts, but I choose to understand these conflicts through the lens of a leader. People will make mistakes, but it’s not because they’re not incompetent or unskilled. Especially when new members are added to the team, I expect these mistakes to occur. This understanding (and subsequent acceptance with the idea of future conflict) is a cornerstone of my leadership style.

Responding to said conflict is where a leader can truly shine. Again, the boss blames the employee – that is the boss’s lazy and ineffective response to conflict. In contrast, I aim for breakthrough leadership. Everything in my organization is my responsibility. I have to look at my role in the organization and conflict resolution.

Perhaps our largest takeaway so far is that a boss blames, a leader evaluates and takes responsibility when needed. Again, I choose to be the latter.

James Sweasy on Leadership Instinct – The Space Between Fight vs. Flight

You don’t need to be a psychologist to understand and relate to the notion of fight vs. flight – we’ve all been there. In the face of conflict, humans generally have two automatic reactions: fight the source of conflict (at the risk of going overboard) or running from the conflict (at the risk of avoiding necessary discourse). This instinctual response was vital when mankind’s biggest threat was being preyed on by a lion, but it is ineffective as a way to handle company conflict.

Both extremes – going all in on fight or all in on flight – do not exhibit leadership qualities. In fact, I see both options as fairly similar in outcome. If I choose flight, it could blow up over time and turn into a fight. Then I’d become a tyrant and blame everything on everyone else for the organization’s shortcomings.

Instead, I focus on the space between fight or flight, where many leadership steps can be taken. 

Simply put, I start by pondering how I got into this fight vs. flight scenario to begin with. I learned to always accept responsibility for my contribution to a situation. As mentioned earlier, I strongly believe that a leader of a company should see all problems as their responsibility to some extent. There are three “I” scenarios that can cause disruption in the workplace:

  1. If I gave you too much work outside your skillset…
  2. If I didn’t train you properly or give you the tools to do your job…
  3. If I put up with your BS…

That’s right – my mindset does not render a team member as completely uninvolved in a conflict. But even in those scenarios, I accept my contribution to the conflict (more on this below).

Following this, I aim to facilitate collective leadership. When we ask our team members how we can work together to fix things, we empower each other. Ideally, a leader creates a collective plan with the other person to move forward, but this starts by finding that space in the middle of fight vs. flight. Ultimately, you find that space between when you accept responsibility for your contribution. All the while listening for others to accept responsibility for their contribution.   If someone is not willing to accept responsibility for their contribution to a particular situation or conflict then it’s clear that we have arrived at #3, putting up with BS.  

Simple Rules to Guide Your Leadership

As I alluded to earlier, the message here isn’t to never consider what someone else did to cause a disruptive situation at work. Indeed, even the most compassionate leader understands that an employee never said “I can’t handle this responsibility.” Instead, the message is that a leader recognizes both parties’ contribution to the disruptive situation. The leader always includes their own contribution to the scenario, which allows that leader and their staff to grow via introspection.

I’m not a boss to my organization, just a boss to myself. And I have demanded that I be a leader, not a tyrant. Above all, I believe those pursuing leadership roles ought to consider the following simple rules to guide them: expect nothing, blame no one, do something. Expectation is just pre-planned resentment – let it go all together. Finally, allow yourself to recognize when you’re putting up with BS – but move forward in a manner that facilitates collective leadership.  

Credit: Collective Leadership & Breakthrough Leadership By David Mensah

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