Boss vs Leader

Recently, my son told me that he’s the boss of a small group of friends.

I suggested that he was the leader, not the boss.  That at work, even though I’m what he would consider to be “in charge,” I think of myself as the leader, not the boss.

“What does that mean?”

So I laid out the differences between leading and bossing.  Leaders ensure their teams have a say in how things move forward.  That they are encouraged to participate and make solutions their own.

In his vernacular, “They get to help decide what games you play and how you play them.  They don’t just do what you tell them to do.”

Bosses, on the other hand, decide what needs to be done and often how to do it.  They give orders, rather than suggestions.  They point and expect their people to do.

“Bosses decide on the games and the rules and expect everyone else to play the way they want to.”

At 7, though I hoped for better, I was not surprised when my son said “Then I am the boss.  I tell them what to do and they do it.  I like that better.”

Before I learned about leading, I was a little boss(y).

And when I was younger, I would have thought so too.  Working for the Marine Corps as a civilian, however, forced me to learn how to encourage rather than order.

As a manager of Marines, I could have used orders and considered it my right.  My team would have followed them – it was part of the culture.  However, I did not wear a uniform and thought that would be inappropriate in that environment.

It would have fostered resentment, not respect.

Instead, I had to build the trust of my team.  Work side by side with them, establishing my credibility and letting them make mistakes where I could.  If I felt strongly that we could not afford to go down a particular path, I shared my reasoning and helped them see my perspective.

I led.  I did not boss.

Years away from the Marine Corps, there are some crazy, hectic days when I think it would be faster and easier if we could just tell folks what to do.  And it would be, in the short-term.

But that does not develop leaders.  That develops followers.  And damn if we don’t need more leaders.

While I clearly have more work to do with my 7 year old, I am hopeful.  He will learn what I can already see – his friends would be happy to follow him if he was not so determined they do so.  He has a natural confidence that inspires others to follow, if only he would turn it down a notch.

I have some time.  Not much – it will fly by and he will be working with the mindset developed over the intervening years before I know it.  But I am determined.

Determined he know the difference.  That he can sit in front of a hiring manager some day and articulate the right reasons he should be responsible for others.  That he not say “because I finally want to be the one in charge” as I have had an aspiring manager say to me.

That he know the difference and embrace being a leader.  Anyone can use position and power to be a boss.  It takes a different brand to lead.


Do you spend time with children, either as a family member or mentor?  What are your thoughts on teaching them the difference between bossing and leading?  I’d love if you could share your experience in the comments and keep the conversation going.