11 Actions That Separate a Leader From a Boss


What is one action that separates a leader from a boss?

To help you acknowledge the actions that separate a leader from a boss, we asked Eller Alumni and business leaders this question for their best insights. From getting buy-in from employees to avoiding micromanagement, there are several actions that help separate upper management from just being “in charge” to actively leading employees to achieve their goals.

Here are 11 actions that separate a leader from a boss:

  • Get Buy-in from Employees
  • Build Better Businesses
  • Establish Equal Relationships
  • Perception of the Employee
  • Recognize Unique Strengths of Employees 
  • Accept Responsibility While Sharing Credit
  • Compliment More Than Criticize
  • Provide Feedback Instead of Reprimanding
  • Leaders Change the Status Quo
  • Empathy
  • Avoid Micromanagement

Get Buy-in from Employees

I once interviewed a CEO of an organization with 75,000 employees, and asked him what defined a leader. He replied with a simple question of his own: "Do people follow you?" If people follow you, you're a leader. If you have to force people to follow, you're a boss. The action that separates a leader from a boss is getting buy-in from employees. To get buy-in, leaders need to seek the perspectives of employees by asking for their opinion. Leadership is a process. It doesn't happen with a single speech.  It happens when a leader seeks to build trust and factors in employee opinions with the direction of a company. If an employee feels heard and understood, then they're much more likely to follow a leader.

Brett Farmiloe, ’06 BSBA (Accounting), CEO and Founder of Terkel

Build Better Businesses

A boss is someone who tells you what to do. If you work at coffee shop you might be told to serve coffee, clean tables, sweep the floor, etc. A leader, on the other hand, says to her team "how do we make this coffee shop better", "how can we improve customer satisfaction", "how do we become more profitable"?  A boss hires "doers" whereas a leader hires "thinkers". Bosses are often looked at by employees as the enemy, whereas leaders form teams that work together for the better good of the company.

Eric Lituchy, ‘91 BSBA (Marketing), CEO of Hunter Digital

Establish Equal Relationships

A leader will include the whole team and establish equal relationships with all. There has been a large push for more inclusive employers. A leader can separate themselves from a boss by ensuring they are living that out, that they aren't favoring one team member over another. A leader will encourage all employees feel comfortable and will try to utilize each person's unique skill set.

Alison Stine, ’13 BSBA (Finance), Founder of Stine Wealth Management

Perception of the Employee

One thing that separates a leader from a boss, is a leader works in the trenches and perceives his or her employees as someone he or she can impart wisdom on and develop, as opposed to looking down from the top floor and viewing the person as merely a vessel that produces economic output. Making the effort to invest in and think strategically about an employee will maximize the potential of that employee becoming a dynamic, long-term appreciating asset that can be deployed to solve business problems across a multiplicity of different domains.

Maxx Anderson, ’17 MIS, Senior Product Consultant at Blue Prism

Recognize Unique Strengths of Employees 

From my perspective, good leaders are thinking 18 steps ahead and have a broad vision of the playing field. They see opportunity and threats that others do not while successfully navigating the ever-changing, often turbulent waters. 

Strong leaders not only inspire others to play a meaningful role and 'buy in' to the desired destination but more importantly fundamentally understand what is needed by each position on a team. They can recognize what strengths and personalities are needed at each individual position while knowing each is unique and requires a different skillset. What makes one person good at one position, doesn't automatically make them good at another.

Blake Johnson, Entreprenuer

Accept Responsibility While Sharing Credit

Bosses, in my opinion, will constantly attempt to blame staff for mistakes while grabbing credit for any good work they do. Leaders, on the other hand, do the inverse. They recognize the value of each individual's contribution to making something happen, and they make certain that their employees understand their value to the organization. Leaders are also not afraid to accept responsibility when it is necessary.

Veronica Miller, VPNOverview

Compliment More Than Criticize

Leaders, in my opinion, understand that creating a nice atmosphere in the workplace leads to higher motivation and production. A good leader is quick to thank staff for their efforts, and when criticism is warranted, it is always delivered privately. A public reprimand not only discourages the employee, but also everyone else in the company.

Dr. Frederik Lipfert, VPNCheck.org

Provide Feedback Instead of Reprimanding

I believe that leaders would privately talk to an employee when they notice the need for improvement. Leaders would provide constructive feedback. Leaders understand that employees are human beings who can make mistakes. On the other hand, some bosses believe that the best way to get an employee to improve is to publicly humiliate them. They may assume that the employees know everything and then get upset at them when they don't.

Natalie Maximets, Online Divorce

Leaders Change the Status Quo

Leaders, in my opinion, are proud disruptors. Their motto is "Innovation." They welcome change and recognize that even if things are going well, there may be a better route forward. And they realize and accept that changes to the system frequently cause waves. Managers persist with what works, improving systems, structures, and processes.

Tanner Arnold, Revelation Machinery


A boss depends on positional authority and traditional hierarchy to establish their position. A leader views everyone as equals regardless of position and may even be "downline" to those they influence. They care, and they facilitate forward progress from wherever they may be.

Tracy Graziani, Graziani Multimedia

Avoid Micromanagement

While paying attention to details is vital, following staff around at all times is not. Leaders and managers both tell their employees what needs to be done, but managers micromanage the work by prescribing how it should be done and demanding frequent updates. Leaders, on the other hand, offer employees a clear understanding of what is expected of them and then give them space to execute their duties, in my opinion. Employees gain a sense of ownership and responsibility as a result, and the absence of a governing authority has been shown to improve morale.

Sumit Bansal, TrumpExcel

Read more about the qualities of a good leader.


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