Leaders and bosses - the battle that never was


Let's get right to the point, although in social networks we love to see comparisons between leaders and bosses, the reality is that they are pure garbage. Leadership is one thing, and being a boss is another. You can be a leader without being a boss, you can be a boss without being a leader, you can be both and you can be neither. So let's stop the nonsense and see why comparing them is the same as comparing tropical pears to astroturf.

Leaders and leadership

By definition, leadership exists because there is one or more leaders. Leaders exist only if there are followers. There is no such thing as born leaders, but without followers. Leadership is situational, it happens in a particular context that offers an opportunity to lead.

That is, the leader appears naturally or imposed in a particular context. For example, if a team of people is in a risky situation or must face a challenge, it is possible that one or more members assume leadership positions.

In the technology world, for example, there is a lot of talk about leaders and managers. We often see positions similar or equivalent to technical leader, area manager, or project or product manager. We associate people with different qualities to specific positions where they are expected to exercise leadership.

But what is leadership?

Definition of leadership

Leadership, according to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Languageis 1) Leadership status; 2) Exercise of the leader's activities; y 3) The situation of superiority in which an institution or organization, a product or an economic sector finds itself, within its scope.

This definition is not very helpful. So let's go to more interesting definitions away from the dictionary.

McKinseypublished an article in 2022 entitled What is leadership? where he defines leadership as a set of behaviors used to help people align their collective direction, execute strategic plans and continually renew an organization.

Peter Druckerwhich I admit I'm not a big fan of, says that the only valid definition of a leader is one who has followers.. However, in an article in Kevin Kruse - author of the
book Great Leaders Have No Rules - says that this definition is very dangerous and simplistic. I like such simplicity, and apparently so does John Maxwell also. The latter says that the leadership is influence - nothing more, nothing less.

In summary, not to enter into romantic visions of leadership, leading is associated with the ability to influence others, who act as followers.

Boss, the bad guy on the ride

rotten green apple

The boss, on the other hand, is associated with the position. A boss is, by definition, a person who holds a higher rank or position than another person in the same hierarchical line. That is to say, the boss has, by organizational structure or regulation, the power to instruct or command subordinates - or persons in charge.

Does that power make a person good or bad? Is the boss person always the bad guy in the ride? Surely not.

Positions and roles

If you read carefully, they are not the same. Camila and Laura can be co-workers, with the same skills and abilities, and one be the boss of the other. Why? For many reasons, maybe Camila is better at selling her skills during an interview. Maybe Laura is better at
who is less nervous in the interview, which projects more confidence. Who knows? Maybe that day the interviewer connected better with one person than the other. After all, we are susceptible and variable human beings.

For the purposes of this article it is irrelevant why some are chiefs and others are not.

However, to round out the idea, another example. An example with no dependence or relation to the individual's capabilities. Let's imagine a person who has just had a baby. This person is very well qualified for the position of "boss". He or she has the experience, credentials and references. However, this person decides to opt for a position of lesser responsibility to ensure that by "following instructions" he or she does not assume greater responsibilities and has more free time or, failing that, can disconnect from work when returning home. 

You may or may not like this last example, but the boss is not always the best person for the job. We just have to understand that the person higher up in the organizational hierarchy will answer for the people lower down, always and without exception. That doesn't make it better or worse, just different.

Good and bad, leaders and bosses

assorted images of linkedin articles with images of leader vs. boss.

And then comes the simplistic and mediocre dichotomy: leaders are good and bosses are bad. Don't we remember how millions of Nazi followers ended up mired in World War II? We witnessed how some "well-known world leaders" openly faltered during the pandemic when humanity needed their help the most, right? We never had a good boss or a good boss? I have had good bosses and bad bosses. And I have followed good and bad leaders.

In my opinion, it is best to be a boss and a leader at the same time. Not only do you have the followers, but you also have the organizational, political or military power (as the case may be) to make complex decisions.

Mood leadership

In the public imagination, the leader is the person who encourages us and pushes us when things get difficult. Like a kind of cheerleader who lifts our spirits when we feel demotivated. The reality is that leadership is much more than that. Leadership is profoundly varied and demands from the leader a great capacity to absorb pressure and stress.

Being a boss also has merit. Unlike leadership, being a boss is not easily delegated. Although leadership can be shared and multiplied, you do not expect your boss to tell you one day "I don't want to be a boss today, I ask you to be a boss for this day". Being a boss is much more complex and often entails responsibilities beyond the work entrusted to you.

And there everything gets confused. Indistinctly the lines of being a boss and being a leader are crossed. So, if I am motivating people, I am a great leader. But if the company is facing a crisis and it is necessary to cut the workforce to ensure business continuity, I am a boss when I have to lay someone off. This is, by all accounts, very foolish. 

Gender violence, religious violence, racism, xenophobia - so fashionable in our times - and discrimination are based on the same principle: some are good and others are bad.

Leaders, bosses and humans

To exemplify how sometimes these roles and positions can coexist and conflict, I want to share with you an anecdote that makes me feel proud as a person and conflicted as a boss.

Several years ago I was leading a team, not so big, not so small. We trusted each other, we were close, we were confident in our abilities, we felt in a safe environment, despite the fact that the climate in the company was rather crappy. I would like to think that this microclimate of the team was, in part, due to my leadership. We were a good team.

One day, one of the good ones, a good team member asks me for a private space and tells me, very personally, that he is seriously evaluating a good job offer and that it is possible that he will leave the company. Here two roles come into conflict, that of the leader, close, advisor, who encourages and keeps the energy up, and that of the boss, who must take care of the interests of the team, the project and the company.

My response: first, to thank him for his confidence, smile and tell him that only he could evaluate if it was a good opportunity; and second, to tell him that from that moment on I considered him as a risk for the project and that I was obliged to look for a replacement or at least set off the alarms.

Conflict between leader and boss

This is just one example and I do not mean to imply that this is what should always be done. Sure there are points for and against. And again, a particular circumstance was presented within a context of leaders, followers, bosses and subordinates. If you have comments - good or bad - I invite you to comment.

The conflict occurred because my job as a leader required that the interests of the company and the project were above the relationship of trust with one of the team members. The trust that motivated this conversation makes me proud as a leader because it defines me as the leader I want to be: close, human, open.

However, as the boss, it put me in a complex position, exposing a strong risk of abandonment from one of the key team members. I must be the "close advisor" or the "risk-mitigating manager."

Outcome of the conflict between leaders and bosses

This person left the team. It was almost imminent before our conversation. And, I must emphasize that for several years we remained in contact. We always valued not only the quality of the work team, but also sincerity and transparency. Maybe I gained a friend and lost a subordinate.

We also mitigated risk and achieved a smooth handover of the position and responsibilities without delay. The project had little impact and, in the end, this person went on to a better position - we never talked about how much better it turned out to be, or if it even was.

I made several mistakes. I'm sure you did. It went well... LESS BADLY.

Possible contradictions between leaders and bosses

The above-mentioned situation clearly shows how leadership can sometimes clash with the obligation to be a boss. The boss, if anything, has an obligation to address the risk of a possible departure. Far from being a possibility, the team member was considering an offer so seriously that he was already discussing it with his manager - and it should be noted that he was the manager of the team and not the boss.
more, it was not like the chief of staff who has resources at his disposal to reduce the risk against bidding.

The manager also has an obligation to follow a procedure if one exists. For example, contact the talent management area - or the human resources area as it is called in many places - and report the incident or exit risk.

The leader can, for his or her part, offer honest and transparent advice. Help weigh the pros and cons and include, of course, pros and cons of staying with the project. Mental note: I think I already told you that the company in question was never, and as far as I know has never been, a very pleasant place to work.

Bosses make the tough decisions

Bosses make the most difficult decisions; they cannot delegate them. Leaders also make difficult decisions, but in their role as leaders they can delegate that decision to other leaders or even to followers.

We would like to see a great leader favor the continuity of the company over the stability of its employees. We love examples of great human leaders who sacrifice the health of a company to take care of their employees. And that's admirable. But. imagine a world where every leader punishes the health of the company. Do you really think they will always get their way? What if the company goes bankrupt and all the employees lose their jobs? Things don't always work out, and not always the decision that seems most humane is the most humane in the end.

Remember that history is told by the winners, not the losers. How many human heads went bankrupt in companies we never knew about? It is impossible to determine.

Good and bad leaders, good and bad bosses

In these silly and divisive exercises, it is argued that only the bosses are wrong. Obviously, this is FALSE. We have good bosses and good leaders, we have bad bosses and, of course, bad leaders.

A bad leader divides, he divides because his power is strengthened by division. Can you recall examples in today's politics of leaders whose strength and followers are based on separating or distancing themselves from others? I imagine you can. Examples abound. Some literature calls this "the external enemy".

I believe that leadership and the qualities that favor the emergence and strengthening of leaders are worthy of study and analysis. I believe that our future generations should study leadership skills, good communication, good interpretation and critical thinking during school. Lo
I believe so strongly that a few years ago I served as a Community Liaison volunteer for a non-profit association whose mission, or part of it, was to strengthen the leadership, communication and teamwork skills of elementary and high school students.

Sometimes, we take for granted that leadership is only for some extroverts with interaction and communication skills and forget that even a withdrawn and not very talkative programmer like me can also build communication and - I would like to think - good leadership skills.

Bosses who are leaders

The challenge is not in demonizing bosses, but in making more and more bosses better leaders. Being a boss is not trivial - although when I was a programmer I thought the boss had no job other than to tell me "how are we doing?".

Of course there are many bad bosses, because we are terrible at interpreting the difference between doing and managing. But that does not mean that bosses are bad and good bosses are leaders. There are great bosses who are not so good leaders, but they rely on the natural or fluid leadership of other people in their team to be excellent bosses. Again, leadership can be shared, multiplied, delegated.

What do you think about bosses vs. leaders?

I would like you to leave in the comments what you think of the "bosses vs. leaders" memes. Just to close I tell you that many years ago at a conference I presented one of those "famous memes" and explained what you have just read. In short, that it is nonsense. A few years later,
someone copied and pasted the slide totally out of context and quoted me as the person who had said that bosses were bad and leaders were good. No comment.


Alberto Dominguez
Alberto Dominguez

Leading teams from theory to real and sustainable delivery of innovative IT products and services.

Articles: 44


  1. I agree with your reasoning in life we all develop many roles, and how we develop those roles is aligned with how we are as human beings, how we are as people and how we act, it does not depend on the hat we wear, it is more in the essence of which we are composed, and for me the essence is what grows, matures and learns and is the basis to play the different roles we have throughout our lives both work and personal, although I do believe in the premise that we are not all good for everything, and each one has special talents that help us to be successful in the different roles in our lives and shortcomings that we cover by relying on other people.
    Thank you for sharing your position and the examples that illustrate your point of view, I look forward to an article on servant leaders 😉 .

    • Thank you Vivi for your comment. Nice to know that you enjoy my posts from a distance. I will think of something for Servant Leadership. About your comment, "we are not all good at everything" I agree, but I think everyone chooses their strengths, I never chose to be "boss", at least not consciously, but it happened and I put my heart into it. I never imagined myself as a teacher either, but I did want to be one. Surely other opportunities came along the way - I don't know, being a researcher or a youtuber, but I didn't really want to do that and it certainly didn't become a strength.

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