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Be a leader, not a boss: why the difference between the two could just be the one thing holding your organisation back


Bosses are highly-respected business professionals, with an elevated level of expertise in their field. While this expertise is pivotal to running a company, a far greater skill-set is required to successfully guide an organisation.

A true leader knows that central to great leadership is a comprehensive understanding of how to motivate teams to accomplish the corporate mission. While being a subject matter expert is important, it is not nearly as important as fostering a positive working environment to achieve the desired business results.

Many bosses look to shift responsibility, while others may be classified as bullies. Often, they are completely unaware of how their actions and words affect those around them, including team members and clients.

They refuse to accept responsibility, instead blaming others for messy situations, incidentally creating hostile teams, disengaged staff and limited productivity. Worse still, clients may feel that they are not being listened to, and may choose to walk away from the organisation.

What sets leaders apart from bosses?

Leaders, on the other hand, have heightened levels of empathy and self-awareness, and use this to support their team members. They own their role in the process of change, and as a result, thrive off the enjoyment and profit that this brings. They do not have to compromise their drive; they can still be tough, but know it takes a ‘village’ to make change.

A true leader understands the importance of a dynamic team. This starts with having the right person with the most appropriate skill set for a particular role. This is usually very different to the leaders’ own skill set. Leaders always look to engage team members who are smarter than themselves, and have complimentary skills. There is often no benefit in hiring someone with the same skills, when they bring nothing new to the table.

The key to a strong team is having a balance of skills and personalities. Understanding your team members’ individual personalities will enable you to understand what motivates them, which can in turn increase their productivity. Some staff need verbal recognition of their work to feel valued, while others need to know they have a recurring, weekly meeting with you to keep themselves and others around them on track.

How do leaders effectively manage teams?

They need to find a balance between being a leader and a friend. It can be easy to slip into ‘friendship’ mode, thus discrediting their authority. So long as leaders find a balance between directing and supporting staff, the workplace can remain close-knit, without getting too close. This is essential, as a team members’ personal lives do not directly influence their professional outcomes, and vice versa. Leaders need to acknowledge that their team have lives outside of work, and need to respect work-life balance.

Clear lines of communication and questioning is essential for team members to feel supported. If you assume that everything is okay because you haven’t asked, you are avoiding your responsibility as a leader. This will jeopardise outcomes for the team.

Asking questions does not need to be a formal process – informal conversations will allow the other person to open up to you naturally, often uncovering underlying issues. From here, you can work out a plan of attack. They may need flexible work arrangements due to family commitments; perhaps they don’t understand what is being asked of them feel you are too busy, so they don’t raise their concerns. Fixing the problem is much better than ignoring it.

Old style bosses tend not to have a clear direction and come to rely on their team members’ advice. Taking action based solely on the advice of others is not necessarily the best move. Staff often just want to be staff; they don’t want to lead. Leaders are listeners who consider the opinions of their staff, and act upon it strategically.

A strategy to successfully bring balance into the workplace is to have weekly work in progress (WIP) sessions. Keep them short; no longer 30 minutes is best. This regular time offers a supportive environment, allowing for challenges to be uncovered, issues to be resolved and ideas to be shared. This is also the perfect time to identify accountability gaps. Active listening in these sessions promotes positive working relationships. Team members are given the opportunity to respect their colleagues, and work together to achieve the desired outcomes of the organisation.

Another way to promote morale is to host occasional ‘non-work’ gatherings. Something simple, like drinks and snacks on a Friday afternoon with a 3pm knock off, will help staff members develop relationships and find common ground outside of work discussion. There is even the opportunity to invite partners every so often. Ensure the gatherings are relaxed, with a start and finish time.

Becoming a great leader is not something that happens overnight; nor does building culture. Leaders need to be accountable, and constantly reflect. Leadership is a skill that must be practiced until it becomes second nature.

Millie Swann is an Executive Business Change Strategist, who specialises in putting struggling CEOs, business leaders and brokers back on the path to success.

Mille Swann
Mille Swann