Boss vs Leader written on a chalk board

The “Leader” Versus the “Boss”

The “Leader” Versus the “Boss”

If you go to any bookstore (almost seems quaint to imagine that these days) you will see lots of books on the subject of leadership.

You will find very few books on being “The Boss”, and any time the word “boss” is used, it’s usually in a negative sense.

I like to think that there’s been an evolution in the way organisations are managed over the past few decades, from one generation to the next.

The old fashioned “tell them what to do, and if they don’t do it, tell them again, only louder” seems like it was almost normal in the 70’s but today, well, not so much.


Family Business Version

The idea for this post came from a discussion with some members of a family business, who were talking about a relative of theirs whose management style they were less than enthralled with.

“He doesn’t want to be a leader, he just wants to be the boss”.

I really appreciated the phrasing used, as I had never heard those terms juxtaposed that way, and it was pretty clear what he was driving at.


A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

So I quickly put this idea into my “future blogs” file and let it simmer for a few weeks. This week I pulled it out and dusted it off, and then looked for a photo to accompany it on Shutterstock.

Lo and behold, I stumbled across more wisdom. There was a picture of something nondescript, along with these words:

A Boss says : “Go”

A Leader says: “Let’s Go”

This reminded me of a quote of mine that my social media team likes to send out on Twitter and LinkedIn, “Telling people what to do is actually one of the worst ways to get them to do something”.


Leading from the Front, or the Back?

The old style of leadership was almost always “from the front”, but then we started hearing and reading about “leading from behind”.

I like the symbolism of these words, because you can almost imagine a group of people and a leader positioned in a certain place, even though the physical positioning may never happen that way in real life.

Then there’s leading from the middle, which almost feels like it might be the best place, because that’s where you’re actually the closest to the greatest number of “followers”.

But I’m not even sure if leading from the middle is “a thing” or if I just made it up (?)


What’s the Issue, Anyway?

When we talk about this boss vs leader issue, what does it really boil down to?

If we just look at the family business scenario that inspired this post, it seems like it comes down to these two points:

  • Autocratic decision making
  • Brusk communication style

There are surely other things that cause dissatisfaction among the followers, but “fixing” just these two would go a long way to improving morale.


Generation to Generation

Earlier I mentioned the 70’s, and I’d guess that there were more autocratic bosses then than now. But there were surely some collaborative leaders then too.

Nowadays, there are more true “leaders”, but that doesn’t mean that there are no longer any “bosses” still around, just less of them.

Family Business Dilemmas

The family business version of this issue is of course more complex. Exits are not as simple and other family “baggage” can make it even trickier.

The flip side is that there are lots of leadership roles in a business family, and one of the biggest mistakes some families make is having the same person fill too many of these roles.


Three Circles, Three Systems, Three Leaders?

The Three Circle Model shows us that there are three systems at play in a family business: Family, Business, and Ownership.

Each system can and probably should have a “leader”, and it really doesn’t have to be the same person.

In fact, I recommend that families try to avoid having the same individual occupy more than one role.

Collective Responsibility

With different people assuming different leadership roles, the possibility of developing a sense of “collective responsibility” is heightened, and that’s a good thing.

In fact, getting all of the key people to understand that they truly are interdependent can go a long way to improving relationships.

Can this be learned? I sure believe so, but the right attitude is key!

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