5 Signs You're a Boss Not a Leader

woman leading a meeting

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Marissa Taffer
Marissa Taffer363
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As you grow in your career, you might have opportunities to have people report to you. You may also have informal opportunities to be a leader. While being a boss can sometimes establish you as a leader, anyone can display good leadership qualities. 

How is a leader different from a boss? 

While some great leaders might also be the boss in their organization, not all leaders are the boss. How do you know which is which? When is your manager is a great leader and not just someone who is going to order you around? 

A boss:

• Gives orders.

Someone who is just the boss tells employees what to do, when and how. Bosses assign work, dictate the schedules and just plain boss around everyone in their path. They aren’t flexible and they don’t allow team members to express their opinions. 

• Motivates with fear and consequences.

A person who is a boss but not a leader uses fear and threats to motivate behavior. For example, they might say things like, “If you’re late, you’ll be written up" or  "If the reports aren’t filed the way I like them to be, I won’t allow you to work on the cross-functional project you’ve been looking forward to." Bosses use the stick (punishment) instead of the carrot (reward) to get things done. 

• Reminds you that they’re in charge.

The boss might name drop, title drop or keep team members out of critical meetings due to their position. For example, they may not allow a newer employee to speak in a meeting with other department leadership for fear that it may come across that others are more competent than the boss is. 

• Tells you what to do.

If you come to a boss with an issue, they will tell you how they want it solved. They won’t care about the cause of the issue; they just want it handled their way and quickly. 

• Takes credit. 

If the team performs well, a boss takes all the credit for the work. A really toxic boss may even take credit for work done by other members of the team. 

A Leader: 

• Asks the team for input.

When there's a question or an issue with work or a critical decision to be made, a leader asks the members of the team for their opinions. Leaders also make sure to keep the team well informed in times of change. 

• Motivates and inspires.

A true leader encourages the team and provides inspiration and motivation when things are hard. Leaders may share stories about overcoming hardships earlier in their careers or just let you know that they understand and are there to help. 

• Supports you.

Great leaders support and build up the team. When you're working with a great leader, you want to run through walls for them because you really believe you can. 

• Asks how they can help.

Instead of telling their direct reports or colleagues what to do, a great leader asks questions to help solve problems. Good leaders ask questions like “May I make an observation?” or “Would you like to talk through some ways to handle this challenge?” They don’t just jump in with their opinions or offer unsolicited advice.

• Gives credit.

If the team performs well, a leader highlights the contribution of others. Leaders will look for opportunities to recognize individual team members within the broader organization. 

• Plays to your strengths.

A great leader gives team members an opportunity to leverage their strengths. If you're interested in public speaking or want to learn to code, a good leader will support you and help create opportunities for you to learn or use the skills you already have. 

How can you become a leader instead of a boss? 

1. Find out what motivates your team and colleagues.

For example, some people are motivated by recognition, while others care more about money or career advancement. Find out how each member of your team is motivated and try to use that information as much as you can. You also want to make sure to know if someone dislikes public recognition. For example, if a team member is anxious when speaking in front of a large crowd, recognizing them in front of the whole company could cause more anxiety than excitement for that person. 

2. Practice active listening.

Leaders don’t just give orders. When members of the team come to you with an issue, make sure you’re really listening to get to the root cause of the problem. Then, instead of just telling someone how to solve their issue, ask questions to guide them into solving them on their own. This will help empower the employee to solve it themselves and build the skills they need to continue to grow. 

For example, let's say you're a vice president, and one of your direct reports is a first-time manager who comes to you with a personnel issue. Her new direct report has been both coming into work late and dressing too casually for your business-formal office. She’s missed the beginning of a meeting with an important partner this week and was wearing jeans and a t-shirt in the meeting. Your direct report is feeling uncomfortable about how to speak with her employee. What do you as a leader do? In this situation you’ll ask questions like “Do you know why your employee was late?” and “Do you know if other people in different departments dress more casually than our team?” to help your direct report decide on the next steps. 

3. Be authentic and transparent.

In a leadership role, you'll be held to a higher standard. That doesn’t mean you can’t be human or show your human side in the workplace. It’ s okay to have appropriate emotional responses to challenging situations. I can remember earlier in my career being a new manager in a large company. Every fall, at the end of the company’s fiscal year, there was always some kind of reorganization and layoffs, depending on where the business was headed. 

When I was about three or four months into the role, this period hit the company, and a woman from another department who was a key player in a big project we were working on was let go. No one gave my Vice President the heads up. She had an emotional reaction to the news. Later, when she pulled me into her office to apologize, I told her that I would have been more disappointed if she hadn’t had the reaction that she did. It showed me that she was human. She displayed empathy for the woman who lost her job and had a reaction that was completely appropriate in that situation. It made me value her leadership more than if she had put on the fake smile and pretended everything was fine. 

4. Do what you say, and say what you’ll do.

When you're a leader, integrity is important. If you say you’ll meet with a direct report each week and you can’t honor that commitment, that's poor leadership. Earlier in my career, I was working for a sales leader who said she was a great leader and not just a boss. Her actions told me otherwise. She had committed to weekly sales meetings and missed 80% of them. The 20% of the time she did show up, she was late and/or completely unprepared. She also told me that she was going to provide resources for me that she never created. I didn’t work for this leader very long, and I don’t know if she ever knew how much it bothered me when she canceled meetings at the last minute. The point is that people are watching. People notice when you don’t do what you said you would do. 

5. Set a good example.

Good leaders model the behavior they want to see in their teams. From dressing the part to their body language , they set the tone for how the team functions. Leaders establish their expectations and team norms, sometimes without even saying a word. The best leaders create additional leadership within their teams at every level. They empower others to take on more and support them along the way. They show us what good looks like and how we can be better. 

While there are many qualities that make up a good leader, anyone who wants to can work on the skills needed. Improving your leadership skills won’t happen overnight, but you’ll be surprised one day when you’re leading a team and people start coming to you asking you how you did it. 

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