The Essential Difference Between a Boss and a Leader

A leader is one who inspires employees to do as they should out of their own personal desire to do so. President Dwight Eisenhower delivered the best definition of leadership I’ve ever encountered: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” There, in a nutshell, the General summarized the essence of leadership and highlighted its clear differences from the role of a boss. A boss seeks to impose his or her will on the employee; the leader finds a way to fan the flames of passion within each person so that they do what their leader desires because they, themselves, profoundly want to do so.
 
Though this approach may emit the stench of manipulation to the uninformed, the process of exciting employees’ passions lies at the very core of leadership. While the timid might recoil at the notion of arousing a desire in others to do what their leader wants, the undeniable fact remains: highly influential people are those who persuade other people to see and do things the leader wants done. Parents accomplish this with children, don’t they? It is one thing to angrily demand that a four-year-old eat his veggies. It is quite another to plop the child in front of an episode of Popeye, allowing the boy to observe the powerful transformation resulting from a single serving of spinach. An angry teacher may yell at students who fail to do their homework, or she may instead show them slides depicting the living conditions of people who didn’t take their schooling seriously. A coach who orders players to do endless wind sprints will get less from his athletes than one who reminds them of the glories and perks associated with winning the championship. Said another way, leaders lead. Some wag quipped long ago that “he who thinks he is leading, but has no one following, is only going for a walk.”
 
A person is not a leader simply because someone inscribed the title “Supervisor” or “Manager” or “CEO” on their job description, door, or business card. A person is a leader in direct proportion to how many people are following and the degree to which they are willing to follow. They will follow only when their desire to do so is aroused. The leader accomplishes this not primarily via the promise of tangible rewards, but by appealing to nobler goals, awakening humanitarian instincts, or engendering such love and respect from those around that no one is willing to let their standard-bearer down. The military leader reminds the troops of their duty to their country, the righteousness of their cause, the vulnerability of the young and weak in the face of a ruthless enemy. The police chief raises the specter of the societal and personal cost that will be incurred if cops fail to do their best, and of the benefits of law and order for all if they succeed. A school superintendent speaks often of the power and responsibility of teachers and staff to alter the trajectory of students’ lives from one that leads toward poverty or prison to one of good citizenship and prosperity. The CEO of a charity reminds volunteers of the philanthropic goals sought and achieved. They are regularly reminded that their work will impact society for generations to come. A business owner holds before employees the opportunity to become their absolute best, to be admired for their excellence, to operate at the peak of their potential, to be a member of a winning team or to share a role in something truly remarkable. The reward for the leader’s efforts is the freedom to take a day off or a vacation or even retire with the knowledge that those who remain behind will continue to pursue the vision with the same vigor and standards as before. The mere boss, alas, can never stray far from his or her smartphone and must check emails constantly. Each arriving text strikes fear in the boss’s heart, perhaps bringing news of fresh disaster. He wonders whether his people are working or shirking. She doubts that her employees are laboring as hard or as well as when she is peering over their shoulders. There is little doubt that when the cat is away, at least some of the mice will play. Such is the plight of the pitiful, hapless soul who fills the role of boss while never achieving (or even aspiring to achieve) the status of leader.
 
The title of my new book, How to Become a Born Leader, describes an internal contradiction and begs the question, “How can you become something as an adult that you had to be born as decades ago?” The title is intended to highlight my belief that there really is no such thing as a born leader. On the contrary, “born leader” is the descriptor that will be assigned to you by uninformed people after you have spent years internalizing and exhibiting all of the qualities of a true leader. No one is born with them; they are carefully honed and developed in the crucible of daily experience. They are perfected as you ascend the six stages of what I call “The Leadership Pyramid.”
 
It should be noted that I do not envision my pyramid as the classic flat-sided sort found on the Giza Plateau in Egypt. Rather, it represents the type called a Ziggurat that ascends in defined levels, like huge stair-steps, similar to those found in Mexico. Many climb a level or two and remain there forever, content to dwell on their lowly plateau. They enjoy the few benefits of mid-level management but have no aspirations to put in the time and effort to ascend higher. Or, perhaps they are unaware that almost any individual properly trained and motivated can climb to a loftier stage, enriching the lives of many others even as they, themselves, are edified. Only a few will ascend to the pinnacle of the pyramid, embodying all of the qualities of a great leader. Some middle-managers will admire the titans from afar, having eschewed the hard work necessary to reach the zenith of the pyramid and enduring the pain of regret that they chose the easier but less rewarding path. The rest will stand in awe from below and exclaim, “There’s a born leader if ever there was one!” And they will be wrong. There’s no such thing as a born leader. There are those who dared to climb, and those who either chose not to pay the price of the ascent or who never realized that they possessed the potential for greatness. Read the book and begin your climb starting from the basement. You can purchase it in the section of this website labeled “Store.”

Written by Billy Riggs