Small Wars Journal

Leadership Behavior: Boss Versus Leader

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 7:43am

Leadership Behavior: Boss Versus Leader


Donald C. Bolduc


The purpose of this paper is to describe behavior differences between managing like a boss and managing like a leader.  The terms boss and leader can be used interchangeably, but if you analyze what makes a boss and a leader, you will start noticing important differences.  In today’s world, being a leader rather than a boss is more effective, and if understood and implemented will improve individual performance, build effective teams, and promote success for the organization. Considering how often people mix the terms boss and leader, it is important to study the difference in behaviors and elements that make a person an effective leader, and how that impacts their boss or a leader approach.  In the sections below, I will provide the definition of leader and that of a boss; what it is that makes and determines a leader’s role; and present why the differences between the two roles in areas such as, approach, and communication styles leads to effective leaders and to the success of the organization.




There is little written in published professional journals referencing “Boss versus Leader.” However, there are plenty of articles, videos, conferences, and discussions on the subject.  The literature reviews chosen for this paper were done to draw attention to the foundations of effective leadership and highlight the distinctions made between effective and ineffective leaders.  The first review describes the importance of leadership style as crucial to leadership effectiveness (Journal of Management Policies and Practices September 2014).  The second review describes the importance of servant leadership in being an effective leader and manager (Journal of Public Policy and Administration Research, 2015).  The third review discusses the requirement for a leader to be organized and the positive effect this has on the employees (Systematic Literature Review of Servant Leadership Theory in Organizational Contexts), and the fourth review describes how successful transformational leaders create clear and compelling visions for the future (Journal of Resources Development and Management, 2016). Transformational leaders focus their energies on vision, long-term goals, aligning and changing systems, and developing and educating others.


Today in the United States, a leader’s effectiveness is critically important.  Research studies have revealed that fifty to seventy-five percent of leaders in the United States are ineffective (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, pp. 147–149).  Although a leader’s values, personality, and intelligence are important, variables like these have only an indirect relationship to leadership effectiveness.  One advantage of looking at leaders in terms of behavior instead of personality, is that behavior is easier to measure, observe, and quantify.  In addition, behavior is easier to change and therefore, leadership effectiveness can be improved.  The United States Congress has a 76% disapproval rating and their divisiveness is the leading cause of their ineffectiveness in serving the American people (Gallup Poll, 2019).  The military’s approval rating is high, but over the past eighteen years, civilian and senior military leaders have experienced issues with personal behavior, institutional truthfulness, loss of trust by subordinates, and poor policy and strategy development; all of which are negatively affecting their effectiveness as leaders (Wong, Gerras, 2015 2019).  Currently the lack of leadership by policy makers, Senate and House military oversight committees, and our senior civilian and military leaders have led us through this century with zero wars won, achieved few, if any, “national goals,” cost Americans $5.9 trillion tax dollars, and 6,986 troop deaths and tens of thousands more wounded soldiers.  It has cost the world ~480,000 direct war-related deaths, including ~244,000 civilians, and created ~21 million refugees.


It is important to note a boss and a leader diverge on the approach they take to achieving success.  The boss is not interested in changing the status quo, which means the emphasis is on following procedure and creating an administrative way of leading.  On the other hand, a leader is constantly looking at how things can be improved and changed.  Therefore, the leader’s role is to empower subordinates, build effective teams, and ensure the success of the organization.  For the boss, this does not matter, as the current methods and processes are sufficient to receive results.  In the end, the difference is about the approach you take with your subordinates and the objectives you set for yourself: do you want to effectively lead and manage others and change things for the better or are you satisfied to just direct and command?  In addition, there becomes a time in a leader’s journey when their IQ is less important than their emotional and adaptability quotient.  Leaders do not need to be the smartest person in the room; they need to be the most understanding and flexible (Bolduc, 2019).


This article will discuss why leadership behavior is important to study and why it is important to understand boss and leader approaches to become more effective in your leadership role.  The paper will address the following subtopics:

  • Definition of Boss versus Leader
  • Key Differences Between Boss and Leader
  • The Approach Required to be an Effective Leader or Manager
  • Definition of Boss versus Leader

A boss refers to an individual who is in charge of people inside an organization.  He or she exercises control over employees, orders, assigns tasks and duties to them, and is entitled to make decisions on some matters.  In the organizational chart, there is no formal title ‘boss,’ but the term indicates a person who is the owner or appointed as head of the organization, department, unit or division.  Therefore, a boss can be a supervisor, manager, director or any other person working on a higher level.


The term leader is defined as an individual who possesses the ability to influence and inspire others towards the accomplishment of goals.  He or she is someone who holds a dominant position and leads others by example.  He or she has a vision, stays committed to their goals and strives continuously towards achieving it.  He or she sets an example in such a way that people get motivated and want to follow in his or her footsteps or directions.


A key area of research that supports the extent of this difference, in leader versus boss concerns in leadership incompetence.  Moreover, the research shows that there may be more incompetent than competent persons in authority positions’ because while a boss may be incompetent a ‘leader’ has characteristics that overcome incompetence.  This research is important because the key factor behind the success of any organization is the quality of leadership exhibited to the employees, that motivates them to do better, and builds teams (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, pp. 223–228).  Developing effective leaders can overcome destructive managerial characteristics, which would reverse the percentage of incompetence and benefit our nation.


Competency models are important as they describe the behaviors and skills that leaders need to be effective and lead their organizations effectively and successfully.   However, leaders and managers must realize that they will ultimately be judged by their results and the behaviors they exhibit.  Leader and manager experience, education, and values play a critical role, but only if they are able to improve individual performance, build teams, and promote the success of the organization (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, pp. 157–160).


Key Differences Between Boss and Leader


As I reflect on my own leadership journey, I freely admit my mistakes and accept that I led as a “boss” not a leader.  My approach as team leader, company commander and my first year as a battalion commander mirrored those characteristics of a boss and not a leader.  As I began educating myself on leadership, I realized this must change.  Unfortunately, I did this in a leadership environment where leading like a boss was dominant and experienced friction with the chain of command.  I accepted this friction and continued to move forward with change and realized the benefits inside the command.  Empowerment fostered trust, increased performance, and organizational success.  The Army has great leaders, but I believe that in the Army there are more bosses than leaders.  This must change.


The significant differences between boss and leader are discussed in the following points (Surbhi S, 2016):

  • A boss is a person in charge at the office who gives the order to employees and behaves in an authoritative way, seeks control and tells his men and women what to do.  A leader is a person who leads other by influencing, inspiring, supporting and encouraging a group of individuals, and works continuously on the achievement of the goal.   
  • A boss has employees whereas a leader has followers.
  • A boss administers and rules by fear while a leader innovates and inspires with trust.
  • A boss gains respect due to his authority or seniority, but a leader earns respect for himself/herself by their conduct, goodwill and quality of character.
  • A boss is always profit oriented.  Conversely, a leader is people oriented.
  • A boss exercises control, unlike a leader who seeks commitment.
  • A boss takes decisions on the basis of standards, organization’s norms and rule.  As opposed to a leader whose decision making is based on values. 
  • A boss assigns tasks and delegate responsibilities to his people.  However, a leader delegates authorities.
  • A boss places blame for the breakdown and points out who is wrong.  In contrast to a leader, who fixes the breakdown and identifies what is wrong.

Competent leaders make up only a minority of people in positions of authority who can engage and develop followers, build teams, and achieve results that improve organizations, societies, or countries.  (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, pp. 234–236) If it were easy to be a competent leader, many more leaders would be in this category.  Since it is not easy, it is worthwhile to briefly cover managerial derailment, and the lessons research has shown to prevent becoming an ineffective leader or manager.  (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy, pp. 236–237) However, what separated effective leaders from ineffective leaders was taking responsibility and fixing the problem.  Another dominant derailment occurrence was being untrustworthy.  A leader that cannot be counted on is detrimental to the success of the organization.  Other common leader derailment themes are unable to build effective teams, unable to delegate, and unable to think strategically.  A leader that micromanages, takes credit for others work, alienates team members, and fails to get results is, instead, destined to be an ineffective boss.


The Approach Required to be an Effective Leader


In a 2016 leadership study by Dr. Sunnie Giles in the Harvard Business Review, she surveyed 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 global organizations.  The participants were asked to choose the 15 most important leadership competencies from a list of 74.  (Giles, 2016) Dr. Giles grouped the top ones into five major themes that suggest a set of priorities for leaders and leadership development programs.  While some may not surprise you, they are all difficult to master, in part because improving them requires acting against our nature.  A leader that demonstrates strong ethics and provides a sense of safety combines two of the three most highly rated attributes: “high ethical and moral standards” (67% selected it as one of the most important) and “communicating clear expectations” (56%) (Giles, 2016).  A leader with high ethical standards conveys a commitment to fairness, instilling confidence that both they and their employees will honor the rules of the game.   Similarly, when leaders clearly communicate their expectations, they avoid blindsiding people and ensure that everyone is on the same page.  In a safe environment, employees can relax, invoking the brain’s higher capacity for social engagement, innovation, creativity, and ambition.  Neuroscience studies corroborate this point, and from a neuroscience perspective, making sure that people feel safe on a deep level should be job #1 for leaders (Giles, 2016).  A leader that empowers others to self-organize by providing clear direction while allowing employees to organize their own time and work was identified as the next most important leadership competency.  No leader can do everything themselves. Therefore, it is critical to distribute authority throughout the organization and to rely on decision making from those who are closest to the action.  Research has repeatedly shown that empowered teams are more productive and proactive, show higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their team and organization. (Giles, 2016) A third leadership theme was the leader that fosters a sense of connection and belonging and who communicates often and openly creates a feeling of succeeding and failing together as a pack, builds a strong foundation for connection.  Research suggests that a sense of connection also positively impacts productivity and emotional well-being (Giles, 2016).  Another priority theme from the research is the leader that shows openness to new ideas, fosters organizational learning, demonstrates flexibility to change opinions, is open to new ideas and approaches, and provides safety for trial and error encouraging learning and do not risk stifling it.


Admitting we are wrong is not easy.  Making mistakes and failure is required for learning, but our relentless pursuit of results can also discourage employees from taking chances.  To resolve this conflict, leaders must create a culture that supports risk-taking.  This provides a platform for building collective intelligence so that employees learn from each other’s mistakes.  A leader that nurtures growth by being committed to ongoing training and helping others grow into a next-generation leader makes up the final category of competency.  When leaders show a commitment to growth, employees are motivated to reciprocate, expressing their gratitude or loyalty by going the extra mile.  While managing through fear generates stress impairing higher brain function, the quality of work is vastly different when we are compelled by appreciation. If you want to inspire the best from your team, advocate for them, support their training and promotion, and go to bat to sponsor their important projects (Giles, 2016).




This article lays out the idea that being a leader is much more effective than being merely a boss.  The traits assigned to be a boss are easier to implement, but the traits assigned to a leader present significant opportunity for effectiveness and improving everyone’s performance.


Leadership is the most important topic in the world today.  America is in a crisis of leadership.  As discussed, we see this in business, politics, and the military.  The places we should be looking for role models is business, politics, and the military.  The characterization of leadership behavior through the lens of “boss versus leader” simplifies a comparison of desired and undesired qualities in a leader.


Those in positions of authority can fix and make anything right or they can be the source of all the problems.  To be a good leader you need training, education, knowledge, and experience.  Most importantly, you need to set aside your pride, use your authority to help others, and create functional organizational politics for the betterment of the organization and the people in it.




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Difference Between Boss and Leader, March 17, 2016 by Surbhi S


About the Author(s)

Brigadier General Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 33 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash.  He is a self-described leader who admits his mistakes, learned from his many mistakes, and keeps the faith with the people, family, and organizations he serves.