What is the Difference Between a Leader and a Boss?

What is the difference between a leader and a boss header

It does not take being in the professional world very long before running into a terrible boss. It’s truly mesmerizing how some of these people get placed into roles in charge of others and the direction of a company. But being a leader and a being a boss have distinct differences. Although one can be both, one can also be a leader without being a boss.

The key difference between a leader and a boss is that a boss is a position in an organization structure with a title which confers authority, a leader is a person to who the group looks to for inspiration, problem-solving, and motivation. Positions of authority are not required for leadership, but the best bosses are also good leaders.

I remember when I was younger and seeing the film “Braveheart” in the theater being blown away by William Wallace’s rousing speech inspiring the rag-tag Scottish army to stand up against the tyranny of England. As impressive as the speech was, what really melted my mind was what happened next. William Wallace (portrayed by Mel Gibson), hops off his horse, gives it a slap to make it run away, and takes his place right at the front of the Scottish forces at the head of the battle. Talk about a great example of leadership.

Braveheart scene from the Battle of Sterling

Many years later, I saw the film “300” which depicts the battle of Thermopylae between the defending Spartans and the invading Persian army. In the film, the Persian king Xerxes who fancied himself a living god, was carried in safety behind the army where he was perched on a massive pedestal being carried by slaves. And that, is a great image of what many bad bosses without any leadership qualities see themselves as.

Both are quite enjoyable, even if staggeringly inaccurate, films by the way.


For the sake of clarifying the difference between leadership and management, we are going to assume the hypothetical boss or manager in this case is not a good one, and is absent leadership skills. They are simply an unqualified person occupying the title. And, if you ever find yourself under the command of a difficult boss, check out our article on How to Lead in a Toxic Environment!

A boss or manager’s job is to extract value from their employees to push the organization forward. The hypothetical bad manager in this case has no leadership skills and therefore must figure out a way to accomplish that task. So what tools would a bad boss use? Fear, blame, criticism, micromanagement among others. Also, ever wonder why so many awful people end up in positions of authority? We have an answer for you, and there’s some interesting science behind it. Check out our article on Why Are there So Many Bad Leaders?

A boss makes the mission about them, how good they look, and what their numbers are. A boss gives directives, takes credit for work done, and often operates their teams like they are the little King Xerxes of their own tiny part of the org chart. When things go wrong, it’s never their fault. Always something you did.

Bosses rarely share the ideas behind goals, or tasks, and care only that you complete them without question. They value your obedience over your creativity, and challenging their ideas are often viewed as dissent rather than due care for the mission of the organization. In short, a manager relies on the authority conferred by their title or position on the org chart and expect your unwavering obedience.


Contrast everything you just read with a leader. Whereas bosses rely on authority, leaders really on good will. Leaders do not care about how good they look, they care about the mission and the well-being of the team. Leaders empower others by giving them responsibilities and help coach them through the rough spots.

Leaders accept responsibility, and appreciate feedback from employees. I tell my employees often, “I want you all to challenge my bad ideas.” I tell them this precisely because the success of the organization, and their personal, creative development is far more important than my ego.

Leaders give hope, motivate, encourage and get into the trenches with the team. They get on the front lines, and get their hands dirty helping just as William Wallace did in the aforementioned scene. Leaders do not care about their title. They understand their ability to help motivate others does not come from fear or command, but rather trust, loyalty, and goodwill.

The Differences

Let’s Take a look at the contrasting differences between a (bad) boss and a leader.

A (Bad) BossA (Good) Leader
Demands respectEarns respect
Issues ordersDelegates tasks and explains their purpose
Views people as a means to execute their willViews people as potential future leaders, regardless of rank
Uses failure to punishUses failure to coach and improve
Expects obedienceExpects feedback
Relies on authority given by their titleRelies on good will they have earned
Says, “Go”Says, “Follow me”
Relies on criticismRelies on encouragement
Squeezes employees for more valueEmpowers employees for more value
Churns through employeesInvests in employees
Blames employees for failuresAccepts responsibility for failures
Looks to maintain their authorityLooks for future leaders to build up

Why are Some Bosses Not Leaders?

Looking at the chart, it certainly seems clear which of the two is superior. So why doesn’t everyone strive to be a leader instead of just a manager? Being a leader is much more difficult. It requires a lot of reflection, self-control, empathy, emotional intelligence and discipline. In fact, you can read our article on How to Develop Your Leadership Skills where we spell out, just how difficult (but worthwhile!) being a leader is.

A boss who is weak of character, has no time for such silly things like self-reflection, accountability, and personal growth. They can get the results they want, while feeding their ego, by being a tyrant. And when you are emotionally exhausted, and just cannot work for them anymore, they toss you and find fresh blood to squeeze every ounce of value they can (looking at you, like 6 people I’ve worked for in the past).

So if you are one of the 1% of bad bosses who are thinking “gee could the problem actually be me?”, where should you go from here? Honestly, get to work on being a better person. Check out the above post on How to Develop Your Leadership Skills. Now, get out there and lead!

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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