Boss or a leader

Are you a “boss” or a “leader”?

Would you say you are a boss or a leader?

Let’s start with definitions: A boss has a position of authority and can exercise power, but a leader has the ability to manage people well and inspire them to action.

We recently discussed signs you’re ready to be a leader (and a few signs you’re not!). A key takeaway is that just because someone is in a position of authorityno matter how great the responsibility or grand the titledoesn’t mean that person is an effective leader. And, we’ve likely all seen the reverse hold true as wellsomeone who is clearly a leader, without a title or any direct authority.

So what’s the distinction and how can you be the leader even if you’re also the boss?

Understanding human motivation and leadership

When we delve into the difference between being a boss or being a leader, it really comes down to motivation.

If you’ve ever done a psychology or sociology course, you’re likely very familiar with American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Even though he presented his theory in a paper in the early 1940s, Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is still used today as a foundational framework in sociology, psychology and management theory.

To summarize, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is typically presented as a pyramid, divided into levels. Originally, his theory was that humans must have the needs met at each level before they can move to the next level of the pyramid. Today scholars interpret this a little less rigidly, but the idea that the basic levels must be met before anyone can be motivated to pursue the higher level needs remains.

So, if our physiological needs (hunger, thirst) are met at the lowest level, we can be motivated to safety needs (feeling safe and secure). From there, we can progress up to the third level of social needs (feeling a sense of belonging and forming relationships with family and friends), then to the fourth level of self-esteem needs (how you evaluate your own self worth and feel good about yourself), to the fifth level of self-actualization (when you realize your full potential).

What does Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have to do with being a boss or being a leader?

Motivation for a boss versus a leader

Let’s check the motivation for a boss who is motivated by having power over others (and I’m sure all of us can think of examples of bosses motivated purely for power). A desire for power is entrenched in the safety level of the hierarchy of needs, which is second to the bottom of the pyramid.

Why? Seeking power is a way to have control over resourceshuman, financial and otherwise. Power can corrupt, as we all know. Someone who seeks power to fulfill the higher personal need of self-esteem might offer or withhold resources to influence others for personal gain rather than for the greater good.

If we put ourselves into the mindset of someone whose motivation is to attain power rather than to assume a leadership role, it’s clear that a power-seeker is not typically thinking about what is good for the group. Someone stuck here may not be able to see other people’s perspectives or likely considers the team members subordinates.

Truly effective leaders are not motivated by power, but rather to achieve goals. This is true of a business leader, the leader of a group or even the leader of a country.

Someone who aspires to true leadership will have met the basic needs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, feel secure in belonging, have formed healthy relationships and have good self-esteem (and a well-developed executive presence!). An effective leader will find motivation at the fifth level of the hierarchy of needs – self-actualization and realizing full potential.

Leadership with this motivation is about doing better, not being powerful. This is how aspirational leaders rally people to coordinate and achieve something individually or together. They establish and prioritize goals based on doing what is best for the success of the group and then motivate and build engagement around those goals.

How power differs from leadership

Now that we’ve considered the motivational differences between a boss and a leader, let’s consider how power is different than leadership:

How it is achieved:

Power can be assigned or granted. Someone in a powerful position might not have credibility or trust, but can hold a position of authority with power over others and resources.

Leadership is a collection of character attributes and skills, with group members who believe in a credible leader they are willing to follow. In other words, leadership is earned rather than granted.

How it is put into action:

Power is about having the right or permission to exercise authority. For example, a judge can decide the fate of a criminal because of holding a judicial position. Power is exercised by issuing orders or commands.

Leadership is having the ability to rally individuals or a group to achieve something. It’s more complex than just having authority; leadership is being able to motivate others to work toward a vision while coaching team members to do their best. Leaders inspire others to action.

What is required:

Power does not require leadership. In other words, someone can be in power, but not be a leader.

Conversely, all leaders need to have some form of power to be effective.

How a boss can become a leader

Many times I meet folks who have been promoted to a leadership role because they were high performers, not because they were exceptional leaders.

We get requests for one-to-one coaching when these managers or directors aren’t enjoying their work, or realize that they need more tools to understand and motivate their team members.

Fortunately, it’s possible to decide what kind of leader you want to be and work toward learning the skills to support your leadership so you can inspire your team to strive, work together and achieve goals.

Here’s how you can move from being a boss to being a leader:

Lead by example: You could sit closed up in your office and give orders and assignments (like a boss!). But to be a leader, it’s time to get those boots on the ground, as they say, and work with your team to set performance goals that are aligned with company goals. Then, help your team members achieve their goals (by coaching them, not by being a micromanager!).

Share your knowledge: Some bosses like to keep what they do secret and mysterious (power!), perhaps because they are afraid of being usurped. In reality, if you share what you know and develop the skills of your team members, you will benefit from their strengths as you empower them to do better. There are many times that you can build a stronger team with the COACH Approach to leadership.

Give credit where credit is due: Acknowledge, thank and share the credit with your team members. Leaders who know how to communicate effectively will understand that different people appreciate different forms of recognition and they will build trust through being authentic whether they’re saying sorry, taking responsibility or showing gratitude.

Solicit feedback: Good leaders don’t just give feedback, they seek input into their own abilities and can handle criticism. They are open to hearing from others and they know how to make their best decisions based on the best information available.

Build relationships: When a leader enjoys working with people, it shows. There are myriad ways to build stronger teams by developing relationships. It takes time, but it pays dividends when there is respect and a human connection – and confidence in your leadership and authority.

If you want to be more than a boss with a title, you can learn ways to be a more effective leader. Our COACH Approach to Leading and Managing workshop is one way to introduce a coaching culture throughout your organization and amplify success for all your leaders (and your bosses!).

The Coach’s Questions

Of our five suggestions above, which one do you think would have the biggest impact in making you even more of a leader? What could you do, this week, to start making that happen?


COACH Approach Journal

COACH Approach Journal


If a COACH Approach is something you think will be beneficial, check out our COACH Approach Journal to help you get started.