Leaders vs. Bosses

Business man shows success abstract flow chart

Do you have an awesome leader? Or do you have a boss? I want you to ask yourself a few questions about yourself and your manager:

  1. Do you feel like you can talk to your boss about anything?
  2. Does your manager have a good idea of what your life looks like outside of work?
  3. Do you feel like you learn something every time you’re in the room with them?
  4. Do they make you feel like you can do anything?
  5. Are they able to challenge you to do better?
  6. Can they give you criticism without making you feel bad?

If you answered, “no” to many of these questions, I empathize with you… but you probably have more of a boss than a leader. If you answered yes to all of them, you are really, really fortunate in having a leader.

I’ve officially been in my current role reporting to a director for over 3 years now. I can honestly say that this leader has been one of the most influential people in my career journey so far. I’m an overachiever and have done a number of things to get where I am, but the insights and experiences I have had with him has made a huge impact on my professional attitude. Here are some of the most important things I’ve learned from him:

  1. You have to know your stuff! My leader has to focus on many different projects and challenges constantly. Seeing how he can turn his focus on a dime from one task to another has taught me that he never stops thinking. Many understand that multi-tasking isn’t the most healthy way to work any longer, but I think this is beyond multi-tasking. It’s knowing everything in your world and being able to jump into that knowledge without needing much preparation. As someone who loves to learn, it makes me happy to see leaders who love it, too!
  2. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”. My leader is modest and asks for guidance and advice over things he’s unsure about. A memory I have from a couple of years ago was him saying: “I don’t understand this at the moment, let me work through this and get back to you on Monday.” He’s committed to understanding something before speaking about it. It’s helped me realize I shouldn’t be afraid to say “I’m not sure”, “I don’t know”, or “Let me do some research on that” instead of pretending I know what I’m talking about.
  3. Having career goals is important. I’ve talked about mine with him a lot. He’s listened, he’s helped, he’s been honest in his advice, even when it doesn’t benefit him. When I received an offer for another position, I asked for his advice and ended up turning down that offer (I’ve never once regretted that decision). He’s also discussed his career journey and challenges with me. His vulnerability has reminded me that he’s a person, and he understands what I’m going through.
  4. People need different types of leaders. Not everyone likes his leadership style. Not everyone can excel in the environment that has been built. I’ve seen my leader get tough, get soft, and put on different ‘hats’ in order to be the type of leader needed for a specific person in a specific situation. As I try to figure out what kind of leader I want to be in the future, I’ve learned I need to learn how to become a different kind of leader when necessary. It can’t always be fun and games, but a leader should be able to ‘let their hair down’ once in a while.
  5. “If you’re doing the same thing in 5 years under me, I’ve failed you.” My leader said this to everyone under him a year ago. He’s taught me that a good leader does not hoard talent, a good leader develops it. He understands that it means he’ll likely lose them to a better opportunity in the future. It’s the circle of life when you’re a good leader. Someday he won’t be my leader anymore, but I look forward to him always being a part of my career journey in the future… one way or another!

Have you learned any lessons from your leaders past or present? Share them in the comments!


photo credit: ffaalumni via photopin cc


  1. Excellent points, good sir. Having had (and been) both leaders and bosses, you surely speak the truth.

    Not saying that the order in which the above points are presented is in any order of priority, but for me #4 “People Need Different Types of Leaders” is a hallmark characteristic of an exceptional leader. The ability to morph yourself or hone your message to be highly efficient and influential across all levels of an organization is a skill that is truly rare and highly desirable. Of course, this must be done without sacrificing your personal and professional integrity!

    I do, however, take exception to #5. I agree; leaders develop talent. This is universal. But tying in with #3, a good leader acknowledges that not everyone on their team has the same career aspirations and helps each individual develop an appropriate skill set specific for their needs and career arch. As an ambitious, overachiever (a.k.a. workaholic), this is one of my daily struggles; accepting that my colleagues aren’t as motivated and driven. To be honest, at times, this lack of a “bias for action” is the source of immeasurable frustration.

    As leaders we must accept that many of our colleagues are actually quite content with their current station in life and do not dream or want of anything larger. And that too, is OK. As an example, a colleague recently retired after working on the same bench, in the same lab, performing the same set of analyses for 41 years! She repeatedly turned down opportunities to take on a staff of her own simply because she was content with what she was doing and didn’t want the added responsibility.

    The world will always need the “Worker Bees”. People on the front lines writing code, analyzing samples, picking up trash, staffing call centers and manning distribution centers. Just a few examples of what make this “civilized” life possible. The challenge facing any leader is choosing the right team and placing them in the correct role so that the needs of everyone (i.e., company, employee, colleagues, etc.) are met. Sometimes, having an employee staying in the same role for 5…10…41 years is what is best for everyone involved!

    To add to your list: Good leaders are candid and truthful.
    Certainly, there are instances where sensitive information cannot be readily cascaded, but an open and honest feedback loop is necessary to help build trust in leadership and employee engagement and growth. This often happens when things are going well. Who doesn’t like to dole out praise? But more importantly, good leaders provide candid feedback about poor performance and areas for improvement. No two ways about it, these discussions are HARD! Regardless of whether you are giving or getting the message, these conversations stink. Thus, most often times they are overlooked or all together avoided.

    • “But tying in with #3, a good leader acknowledges that not everyone on their team has the same career aspirations and helps each individual develop an appropriate skill set specific for their needs and career arch. As an ambitious, overachiever (a.k.a. workaholic), this is one of my daily struggles;”

      Something I struggle with too, or on the flip side, I more struggle with my Millennial brothers and sisters who seem to be paralyzed with the possibilities and never make any real moves to do anything.


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