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How to be a leader—and not just a boss

May 20, 2021

Do you have direct reports? If so, congrats; you’re a boss! But being a leader…well, that takes a bit more than a management title.

If you’re not sure where you fit on the scale from boss to leader, don’t sweat it. The fact that you’re reading this is a great sign that you’re being intentional about adopting and maintaining the qualities of a leader.

That said, being a leader isn’t a one-and-done deal. It takes practice, dedication and, above all, a commitment to your team and organization. Curious what it looks like in action? Let’s take a look.

Handling problems

Boss: Relies on quick fixes

Bosses can be great at thinking on their feet—possibly at the expense of being proactive. They might consider efficiency more important than quality, resulting in them encouraging their team to work harder with less guidance. While this can certainly work in specific environments, it carries a high risk of employee burnout.

Leader: Focuses on long-term solutions

Leaders know it’s essential to create an environment where employees feel comfortable coming to them with wins, losses and questions. This approach is geared to help employees develop over time, allowing the leader to focus on overall success rather than quick fixes. Initiating problem-solving strategies that focus on overall success vs. quick fixes will help develop employees over time.

Completing tasks

Boss: Gives orders

Without leadership traits, bosses tend to fall into two categories: micromanagers, and those that say, “don’t worry, I’ll just do it.” Both of these approaches are bad habits that actually hurt a team rather than help it. Bosses might think they’re being helpful by taking tasks off their team’s plate or overseeing every little detail, but all they’re doing is preventing them from being able to get things done on their own.

Leader: Gives guidance

Leaders find the balance between offering assistance and letting employees figure things out on their own. They give their team room to try new things and trust that they’re knowledgeable enough to get it done in a way that works best for them. If it turns out their team does need help, they’re close by and ready to offer support with a help-first mentality.

Growth opportunities

Boss: Designs their employees’ careers

When it comes to encouraging growth, bosses without leadership traits are at risk of putting employees in a box. Whether it’s because they’re fixated on an employee’s strengths/weaknesses, or because they struggle to piece together how different personalities fit into the workplace, they’re often uncomfortable customizing training plans and tend to have a one-size-fits-all mentality.

Leader: Helps employees design their own careers

Learning about individual employees’ strengths is a huge priority for leaders. Not everyone will thrive with the same kind of support; everyone has a different idea of what success looks like for their own career, and it’ll probably change over time. Leaders know how to help develop an employee’s strengths so they feel empowered to choose their own path, both at their organization and beyond it.

Measuring success

Boss: Compares employees to each other

Bosses tend to define success using hard and fast metrics. Don’t get us wrong—we love strong measurables as much as the next guy, but raw data rarely tells the whole story. Instead of focusing on how employees are growing as individual team members, bosses tend to compare one employee’s performance to another, often at the expense of more important, but less tangible factors.

Leader: Takes a personalized approach

Leaders see the benefit of helping their team with professional development outside of the company’s hierarchy. That is to say, they’re interested in assisting employees in growing out, not just up, in the organization. Do they challenge themselves? Do they approach work with enthusiasm? Are they team players? Success looks different on everyone, and good leaders know how to identify and develop their team’s strengths in a personalized, meaningful way.

There’s no “right” way to be a leader

There aren’t hard and fast rules on what turns a boss into a leader. Like most everything, leadership is a journey. Being a leader takes time, effort, patience, diligence, commitment and most importantly, practice.

Great leaders aren’t made overnight. But every boss can become a leader, and when they do, the entire organization—from employees to leadership—is empowered.

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