Are You a Leader or Just a Boss?

Even if you have chosen the entrepreneurial path and own a business, generally most people have had a job working for someone else at some point in time. For those people that currently do have a boss this question is easy, but do you remember what it was like to have a boss and work for someone else? Keep that question in mind as we move forward and discuss good bosses vs. bad bosses and what the key differences are. Also, what is the difference between a true leader and someone who is just in charge, as well as what the traits of a leader are and do you have to be born that way? I'll even open up a bit and tell you about my personal experience with this question that runs the full gamut of one terrible boss, and another boss who was an amazing leader in one company at the same time.

We all can remember a good boss or a bad boss for different reasons. Generally the extremes are what stand out. With a bad boss, or lousy leader, all of the times they yelled at you, took all of the credit for something you did, or threw you under the bus come to mind. Maybe they went out of their way to make your life miserable, or micro-managed you to the point where you wanted to scream. And in the worst case scenario, it is all of the above. When you have a boss like this there are a few inevitable and obvious things that happen:

  • The working environment becomes at the very least uncomfortable and in many case downright unbearable.

  • People dread getting up and going to work.

  • Performance suffers due to the stress of nothing ever being good enough

While these three examples are true, the most dangerous thing that happens is the employees check out. By this I mean that they stop caring and they have no sense of pride in their job or their work. When this happens there is no buy in and a business can get itself into real trouble. Just think, would you really want someone who has checked out to be the one engaging with clients in customer service?

On the other hand, we remember our good bosses as well, obviously for different reasons. It would be easy right here just to list the opposite of everything discussed regarding a bad boss. However a good boss, a real leader has an impact that goes deeper.

Bare with me if you are not a sports fan, but it is commonly believed in the National Football League (NFL) that a top tier quarterback can hide many shortcomings that a team might have at other positions. Along those same lines, the top tier quarterback also makes everyone else on the team better. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates and puts them in situations to succeed. Now even if you are not a sports fan I bet you are seeing where I am going with this. When talking about leadership I could go on all day with sports analogies. It's easy to do since sports (male and female) are chalked full of leaders. People with type A personalities who thrive on pressure and know the concept of a team. Do you think there is any coincidence that in the business world so many terms are borrowed from sports? That being said, a good leader transcends genre and is usually a good leader in all facets of their lives.

Are Leaders Born, Or Can It Be Learned?

I dare you to try to research this topic and find a definitive answer. When I came up with the idea of this topic for a blog post I spent a lot of time looking for some sort of scientific proof one way or another, and that certainly didn't happen. There have been studies done on this topic for a long time, but the answer has not been revealed with any certainty as of yet. You will find people with opinions on both sides of the matter, but the best thing we have at this point are polls, conjecture, and theory.

The most informative article I read about leaders being born vs. leadership being learned (and frankly the one I understood the most) comes from Leeanne Rose OMorain in a post called "Are Leaders Born or Made". The following snippet comes from her post describing a study done by the Centre of Creative Leadership. You can click on her name to go to her website, and click on the title of the article to pull it up in its entirety.

A World Leadership Survey of 361 people at the top level of their respective organisations found that 52.4% of those surveyed believed that leaders are made, with only 19.1% believing that leaders are born and 28.5% of the opinion that leaders are equally born and made. Those who believe that leaders are made tend to place more emphasis on experience, whereas those who believe that leaders are born place more emphasis on the traits of an individual. Both schools of thought share the position that leaders should be participative, team oriented, charismatic and humane oriented. It is interesting to consider that the majority of high performing individuals subscribe to the belief that leaders are made. This may be a reflection of the growth mindset which contributes to progression and professional success, prevalent among individuals at top organisational level.

To be honest I was a little surprised that when people who, for all intents and purposes, are widely considered leaders were asked about this, an overwhelming 52.4% believed that leaders are made. Before researching this I was in the camp that leaders are born, so I'm sure that has a little to do with my surprise. At first I assumed that these leaders recognized how hard they worked to get to the level they are at now and didn't want to discount how important that was. However after reading the rest of the paragraph, and then the article, the explanations of why the leaders felt the way they did made more sense. While some science would like to prove that certain people are born with traits that naturally enhance their ability to lead, other science will tell you that there has been nothing proven regarding these traits. Since I am not a scientist, and real scientists are way smarter than I am, I think going with inconclusive is the safe route. Although the 28.5% who think leadership is natural AND learned is making more and more sense at this point.

Why is it relevant if leadership is natural or learned when comparing bad bosses vs good leaders? Companies spend an enormous amount of money training and developing management level employees and above to be good leaders. If you are a business owner with employees of this level you can certainly attest to this. That level of investment requires a great deal of importance be placed on finding the right people for such a position. While some may be searching for a definitive answer out of curiosity, believe me that business owners are looking for the most efficient way to find the best leaders possible.


Here we have another age old dilemma regarding leadership in business, is it better to be feared or respected. I have actually asked many people this question before. Whether it be an employee of mine out of curiosity, or I'm interviewing someone for a management position, I believe you can gain an insight into how people are motivated and how they prefer to motivate. I find that when asked, most people want to truly believe that it is better to be respected. After all that is the more virtuous answer isn't it? If you have never looked into this on your own I encourage you. I believe you will be a bit surprised if you go back in history and see how some of the greatest and well known leaders felt about this question. I'll give you one, Machiavelli. He said "It would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.”

He makes a good point, but times are a bit different now and it is easier to achieve both to a certain degree. You can argue that in the case of people following rules it is better to be respected. If people respect you as a leader they won't break the rules right? This might be true for most people, but have you ever run a business or worked for a company where no one ever broke the rules? If you have I would love to hear from you, but I feel safe in saying that it has probably never happened. In this particular case being feared can be better, as someone might think twice knowing what the consequences of breaking a rule is, and that you have no issue handing down that consequence. This is just one example, but ultimately the answer is different for everyone. It depends on which style fits YOU or the SITUATION the best. You have to make that determination (unfortunately sometimes through trial and error) while also trying to achieve both.

The benefits of being respected:

  • Employees feel empowered and will be honest with you

  • People will take a sense of ownership and pride in their work

  • It becomes more than a job to people, more than just a way to earn a paycheck

What to watch out for when your style is to be respected:

  • People can become too comfortable or friendly leading to a lackadaisical atmosphere, and even to some people's work slipping because they are not worried about consequences

The benefits of being feared:

  • Fear is an extremely strong motivator for people to get things done how you want

  • You will get little push back or argument over the correct way to complete a task

What to watch out for when your style is to be feared:

  • Now the job is only just that, a job. People are only there for a paycheck

  • The minimum amount of work will get done in order not to get in trouble. There is no motivation to go above and beyond or express any ideas of their own

I'm sure we could go on and make a much longer pros and cons sheet but you get the point. I recently read a blog post from Kyriaki Raouna at that discussed this topic in detail. The following snippet is from that article. You can get to the site by clicking on it, and you can get to the full article by clicking on Kyriaki's name.

For example, when people fear you, they are more likely to do what you tell them to do, but just because that’s enough to get them a paycheck. This way they are more likely to perform how you want them to do so that they can keep their jobs. What this means is that they won’t be giving out their 100 percent or take initiative on doing anything else apart from their job.

On the other hand, when you demand respect from your employees, they are more likely to be honest with you and even disagree with you. In fact, they might not even like you as a person but think of you as a good leader and still perform for you. But since respect can only be earned, it doesn’t come with any job title, power or seniority, you have to be willing to win over your workers and amaze them with your never-ending enthusiasm for work.

A good leader will find out which is best for them. They will do this through instincts, and their ability to get to know their employees. A good leader listens and is empathetic, giving them a much greater chance at being feared AND respected at the same time.


Before I started AES I had plethora of jobs. There were jobs where I was just an employee, and jobs where I was the boss, but also still had bosses. Some jobs I loved and some I hated, a typical story really. However I don't regret a single one because each of them taught me something different about business and enabled me to know what I needed to do to start my own.

One job stands out to me more than the others for many reason. For one it was the longest I have ever worked in one place. However, another is that in the end I only had two bosses. One of them was the best leader I have ever worked for, and the other was the worst boss in the history of bosses. I am obviously not going to mention names so I'll call them the partner and the owner. The partner is still a mentor to me. He would do things (sometimes the dirty work, literally) that he could have had 100's of employees do for him at the snap of a finger. I asked him why he did that, and I'll never forget what he said, "How can I ask anyone to do something that they have never seen me do before myself?" Well he definitely could have made people do those things, but the point is that no matter what the task was, no one every groaned or complained when he asked them to do something. And I used the word asked, not told because he never had to tell anyone what to do, it was always asked, and the task was always done. He also spent time and got to know every employee that he could. He truly enjoyed hearing about your life outside of work (which he never had to ask for, people just told him because they knew he really gave a damn). There were people in the company that would literally run through a wall for him.

Unfortunately for this particular business the only person higher up than the partner was the owner. He WAS the owner, and he sure wouldn't let you forget it. There was a time early in the companies expansion that we had an incredibly talented group of individuals that were doing great things as the business exploded onto the scene. It was fun for awhile but as we got to a certain point the bad started outweighing the good. The owner became very wealthy, and with that money came notoriety. The "good life" for him went straight to his head. Before this happened he would stand back a little and let the people he hired do their jobs. However now that he was the man around town he felt like he needed to prove to his new friends that he was the reason for the success of the business. He could not have the credit go anywhere but himself. And what is worse, not only would he not give anyone credit, but if something went wrong, he would find one of us to blame publicly. I don't just mean publicly like in front of employees, I mean out in the open to his friends or whoever important would listen. The icing on the cake for most was that he couldn't let himself ever say anything positive to his employees. For some reason he had it in his head that no matter how good things were he always had to look for at least one bad thing to yell about. This is when his talent started leaving. One by one we started moving onto other opportunities, and more importantly a better work environment. I stuck it out longer than most, and we were able to get by on the reputation we had built and the fact that the partner was still there to mask a lot of the inadequacies. All of us have now moved on and are doing well in other places. The last I heard the owner is still the same, and he is burning through employees at an incredible rate. It's almost too bad.

Thank you for reading this, and as usual I had a great time putting it together. I hope you were able to get something out of it, and maybe even learned something about how to become a better leader. Take a minute to leave a comment or share this as well. Thank you!

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