The difference between a ‘boss’ and a ‘leader’

Author: Marilyn Aquino

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” —John Quincy Adams

I’ve learned through experience that there is a big difference between being a boss and being a great leader. I have been working in the corporate environment for over 25 years, and I’ve had a plethora of bosses, but one great leader and amazing mentor has had a major influence on my career. Here are some of the conclusions to which I’ve come.

  • A boss might tell you what to do just to accomplish the task at hand. A leader will take time out of a busy day to teach you how to master a particular skill because they’re also focused on your growth and success.
  • A boss is a subject matter expert, but a leader is a people expert.
  • A leader never defines their success by the title they hold or their status in the hierarchy of an organization. Instead, they exude influence naturally, whether they’re walking through a room or participating in something virtually. Her ability to influence in these ways really opened my eyes.
  • A true leader measures success, not by their personal accolades, but by the achievements of their team members. My mentor felt a personal failure if someone on her team failed. When we succeeded, she succeeded. While she certainly held me and her subordinates accountable for performing, she also took those necessary measures to build our confidence, passion for excellence, and self-accountability.

This mentor I describe above was a tiny little thing, but when she was in a room, a client meeting, or even at a holiday party, her effective presence was felt by all. Good leaders can command any room, not because they instill fear in people, but because they exude confidence, intelligence, and a sincere interest in others. This is infectious and motivates people to follow their lead. This well-known pharmaceutical industry executive (who hired me three times) was not a “boss,” but a leader because she could simultaneously command her team while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. She genuinely sought to do the right thing in every situation and was always mindful of her team. She welcomed everyone’s opinion no matter what their position, and if she didn’t agree with a point of view, she had an incredible knack for thoroughly explaining the “why” and turning it into an “aha” moment. I certainly had my share of ‘ahas’ because of her, and never felt insignificant or humiliated, but rather empowered. I will never forget her ability to remain calm during the toughest of situations and wish I had a dollar for every time I heard her say, “We just have to get through this week, and everything will be fine.” No matter what, she was always poised, motivating, solution-oriented, and respectful, which are just a few key characteristics of a good leader.

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