6 Steps To Be a Leader and Not a Boss (Key Differences With Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

April 22, 2021

No matter your role within a company, you experience the effects of good or poor leadership. Organizations achieve more when managers strive to be leaders rather than simply bosses. If you're interested in guiding your team to success rather than bossing them around, you might benefit from reviewing effective leadership practices. In this article, we distinguish between bosses and leaders and look at steps that ensure you manage employees through productive leadership.

Related: The Concept Of Leadership Explained: Cultivating Effective Leadership

What is a boss?

A boss is a supervisor or manager who doesn't use leadership practices when overseeing their team. As a supervisor, you hold some authority within a company hierarchy, but your title itself doesn't describe how you conduct yourself, achieve an organization's goals or help employees succeed. Managing without leadership can limit an organization's success by failing to maximize teams' potential or missing opportunities for innovation.

Related: 8 Strategies for Dealing With a Difficult Boss

What is a leader?

A leader is someone who actively helps an organization reach its goals by exhibiting a high degree of professionalism in their own work while supporting others. Leaders are often responsible for overseeing other employees, but not necessarily. Some employees earn promotions precisely because they show leadership qualities in their work habits. Leaders help their teams accomplish more because they clearly understand an organization's mission and vision for the future.

Key differences between leaders and supervisors

Here are several key differences between leaders and supervisors who don't lead:

Communication styles

Some supervisors use one-way communication. They operate under the assumption that they have authority because they know the best way to complete projects. Therefore, they give orders or tell employees what to do. When employees address their manager, the manager hears them but doesn't try to understand more than the literal content of what's being said. Supervisors may communicate in an intimidating manner that makes employees fear consequences and, if upset, might express anger or frustration.

Leaders value conversations where employees can provide input, even when being assigned responsibilities. Leaders operate under the assumption that an employee can recognize potential improvements in how the team completes jobs and should therefore feel encouraged to share them. Leaders recognize this requires listening. Listening closely and paying attention to how an employee communicates helps a leader understand how an employee might be feeling or thinking. Even under pressure, leaders manage their emotions and focus on moving forward rather than letting anger create distractions.

Example: A supervisor begins each day by leaving a list of tasks on each employee's desk for them to read when they arrive. They don't make sure all tasks are clear and accomplishable. A leader begins each day by providing lists of tasks during a team meeting where employees can ask questions, learn about the work of teammates and provide feedback on how their projects are coming along.

Responses to mistakes

Mistakes occur in all professional settings, yet some supervisors act as though mistakes should never happen. They respond to mistakes by becoming upset and making the employee who made a mistake feel bad about their error. When the supervisor makes a mistake, they might look to blame someone else for their failures. These types of managers rarely help their employees make improvements to avoid similar mistakes and instead expect them to figure out what went wrong on their own.

Leaders understand mistakes are inevitable and can be useful learning experiences. This attitude helps them respond to mistakes with compassion, as long as employees put forth honest effort. Employees feel comfortable discussing mistakes with leaders because they don't fear being treated disrespectfully. Leaders take ownership of their mistakes and ask how they could've done more to help others avoid mistakes.

Example: An employee who works for a non-leader undercharges a client. The employee considers hiding the mistake to avoid conflict, but emails the manager instead. The manager calls the employee into his office to express frustration, then tells the employee to go back to work. An employee who makes the same mistake but works for a leader immediately goes to acknowledge the error, concerned with finding a solution. The leader thanks the employee for taking responsibility, and they discuss what led to the mistake and how to avoid repeating it.

Related: 6 Leadership Theories For Career Growth

Delegation methods

Some supervisors guard their authority by trying to make as many decisions as possible. When delegating, they give orders and don't show appreciation. They sometimes assume that employees do the best job possible by default, without support or motivation. However, they also micromanage to make sure employees do jobs as they would do them. The belief that they know best results in these supervisors assigning responsibilities without employee input.

Leaders are interested in how employees would delegate responsibilities because they want to know how to maximize the strengths of their teams. Leaders understand employees choose where they work and therefore appreciate team members' presences and skill sets. They embrace the benefits of motivating and inspiring employees and make themselves available to help with projects. Employees don't worry about leaders micromanaging them and feel empowered in their roles. When discussing assignments, leaders make sure employees agree timelines and methods of completion are reasonable.

Example: A supervisor emails an employee with a new sales lead and states the lead should become a client as soon as possible. They don't provide context about the client or help the employee. In the same situation, a leader approaches the employee in person. They explain why the lead is promising and why they think this employee is well-suited for success. The leader asks if there's anything they can do to help the employee land the sale.


Some managers perceive themselves as exceptional because they hold a less common role in an organization. They perceive their job as a matter of power and authority. This might lead them to conclude that they need not follow the same standards as other employees. When encountering challenges, these managers look outward for fault because they perceive themselves as above making mistakes.

Leaders perceive themselves as an equal member of the team. They perceive their job as a matter of empowering others and setting an example. Because employees might follow their behavior, leaders respect the organization's standards at all times. Leaders have a sense of humility. When they encounter challenges, they look inward and start by understanding how they could improve.

Example: A supervisor could become anxious when another manager reports that one of the supervisor's employees is under consideration for a promotion. Fearing a loss of authority over the employee, the supervisor becomes more critical of the employee and otherwise avoids any interaction. A leader receives the same news and feels proud that the employee has made professional progress. The leader doesn't interfere with the selection process, but continues supporting the employee and providing constructive feedback.

Relationships with employees

Some supervisors don't build meaningful relationships with employees. Or, if they want employees to be exceptionally kind and responsive to them, they assume such treatment is their privilege. These supervisors might remove themselves from their teams unless giving them work. They prefer to maintain the power relationships in a company so that they can keep their authority over as many people as possible.

Leaders consider strong relationships with employees critical to success. They believe in earning the respect of employees by giving it to them first and don't take offense if employees maintain privacy about their personal lives. Leaders take opportunities to learn about employees and take an interest in their aspirations, professional and personal. Leaders want to see their employees earn promotions and gain more responsibility within an organization.

Example: During lunch, a supervisor might eat in his office with the door closed. A leader eats in the break room and uses the time to see how employees are doing.

How to be a supervisor who's a leader

Here are the steps to make sure your management style is that of a leader:

1. Review your communication habits

A leader's communication skills take time to develop and require you honestly reflect on your communication habits. You might find areas for improvement if you:

  • Review the tone and style of your speech and electronic communications.

  • Review how you communicate project assignments and updates.

  • List qualities you personally appreciate and dislike in others' communications.

  • Confirm your employees can give routine feedback.

Being a leader doesn't mean your job is without stress, but it does mean you don't let your stress affect how you communicate. Consider how you can manage your emotions to remain respectful and positive, even during difficult periods.

Related: Top 12 Leadership Certifications To Improve Your Leadership Skills (& Career)

2. Take blame and give credit

Employees not in leadership often have incentives to make sure that coworkers don't unfairly blame them for mistakes and that they receive credit for their work. However, leaders operate under different guidelines. While it's important for employers to hold people accountable, leaders claim ownership of teams' shortcomings when things don't go as planned. When a team experiences success, leaders give others credit and acknowledge their contributions.

3. Build teamwork

When working under non-leaders, employees often have to worry about protecting their own interests. With strong leadership, employees feel confident in their roles and use their energy to help others succeed. As a leader, you have tremendous influence over how employees relate to each other. Instead of encouraging competition, you can empower employees to recognize and applaud each other's strengths. You can build teamwork by:

  • Encouraging collaboration on projects

  • Implementing mentorship programs between experienced and newer staff

  • Organizing group activities

  • Setting team-based performance goals

  • Resolving conflicts proactively and respectfully

4. Follow through on providing support

A supervisor might promise to offer support but fail to follow through. Therefore, employees learn the supervisor is unreliable or forgetful. As a leader, make sure when you promise help to an employee, you understand what's entailed. Organizing your training resources or schedule to make support readily available ensures your employees know when and how they can seek assistance.

5. Train your replacement

A useful mindset for developing your leadership skills is to view your role as training your replacement. If you consider each employee as someone capable of growing and learning enough to become a leader in your organization, then you educate, prepare and encourage them. Employees value workplaces where their management actively helps them advance their careers and often respond with increased loyalty to the organization.

Related: Your Guide To Visionary Leadership

6. Emphasize two-way feedback

Leaders are experts at providing and receiving feedback, as both are crucial for companies' growth and innovation. Leaders aim to make employees feel like feedback helps them accomplish more rather than feel like criticism. This creates a work environment where employees enjoy and seek feedback instead of fearing it. However, leaders also collect feedback on their own performance. They consider employees important sources of information for understanding if a company is being run effectively. Employees observe many problems difficult for managers to see or may have creative solutions to ongoing challenges.

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