Although we use these terms interchangeably in popular culture, there is, in fact, a world of difference between a leader and a boss. Among other things, leaders empower, encourage, and inspire, rather than ruling through fear and stress. Here are five differences between the two–and some actionable mindsets for bosses to become leaders.
1. Be a good listener
To see the whole picture, a leader needs a team of people who bring information forward at the right time. A good boss might have several trusted employees who they turn to for advice. A good leader will encourage any team member to approach them with relevant information and avoid playing favorites or penalizing people for sharing negative news.
By creating open conversations, the leader will hear about issues before they become larger problems; moreover, leaders will be privy to positive details which might be otherwise overlooked. Even a seemingly small nuance, such as a thoughtlessly brusque reply or a poorly-phrased remark, can hurt an employee’s feelings or damage their ego. As such, a good leader gets the information early and can stay one step ahead of any simmering tensions or developing conflicts.
2. Create teaching moments
Feedback sessions with the boss can create dread in employees, but it doesn’t have to be this way. When an employee’s course or work needs to be corrected, there is an opportunity to show them how to do it better and make them feel valued. By thinking as an advisor rather than a critic, a leader helps move things in a positive direction. Because the leader is more accessible, they can also catch whatever is brewing early enough to minimize the impact. These moments come about more often when the employee knows their boss is a good listener.
The office door should also be open for celebratory sessions, and leaders should give credit where credit is due. By creating regular, positive feedback cycles, the dread of meeting with the boss can instead become positive anticipation.
3. State, and then show, support
There is a vast gulf between promises of support and actual help, so a leader needs to be visibly and actively behind their team. A boss lets employees take the blame, while a leader is there for both the good and the bad. Of course, being supportive doesn’t mean holding back information like low numbers or poor performance, but instead delivering it in an honest, neutral way and showing the path forward instead of focusing on the past. A leader is also sure to take responsibility when necessary, and will accept criticism for both themselves and their team.
Demonstrating support also creates the trust necessary for employees to come forward with information and willingly engage in teaching moments.
4. Encourage self-awareness
Tensions can run high in meetings or sales presentations where bonuses or recognition are at stake. A leader will promote an environment of reflection and adult self-awareness by encouraging employees to take the time to consider their motivations and reactions. This is a way of allowing people to be adults and manage themselves while remaining professional. Everyone will psychologically process events or changes in their own way, and a leader will allow for individual styles of releasing tension. Some people will need a walk, while others will want to talk it out.
Similarly, team bonding experiences should vary to appeal to different personality types. Keep this in mind during team retreats as well as daily activities such as meetings. What worked for one person might not have resonated with another, so a leader will try different combinations to engage everyone.
5. Seek solutions and contributions openly
A leader is not afraid of appearing vulnerable by admitting they don’t know the answer. They understand that the team members may know something useful because they are more directly involved in day-to-day activities. By being open about what is needed, a leader will foster an innovative, problem-solving environment.
Remaining open to suggestions is also crucial for a leader to correctly delegate, rather than order, activities. Imagine a meeting where the boss instructs someone in what to do, so they stay quiet even though they aren’t the best person for the role or know the task won’t make a difference. Then imagine a meeting where the leader presents the situation, asks for input from the group, and then delegates based on their contributions. The difference in results between the two could be the difference between failure and success.
Leadership is about bringing out the best in people through creating a workplace in which everyone can thrive and contribute to a healthy organization. The overarching theme for these five core competencies is harmony between people, goals, and the overall company mission. A good leader understands how these elements relate to one another and help advance everything and everyone together.
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