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Are you a boss or a leader? These characteristics will strengthen your leadership skills

Strong leaders are approachable, will listen and aren't afraid to make decisions. Learn more about what separates leaders from bosses.

7 min read


Are you a boss or a leader? These characteristics will strengthen your leadership skills

John Stoker

This summer, two of my sons traveled to Long Island in New York to sell pest-control services. This job requires their employees to work in teams and go door-to-door doing summer sales. They work 12 hours a day, six days a week, in all types of weather dealing with all types of people.

After being on the job a number of weeks, during our weekly call I asked the older of my two sons what he was learning. After a deep sigh, he said, “I wish our team leads were more like leaders and less like bosses.”

His distinction prompted me to ask, “What do you feel is the difference between a boss and a leader?” In his answer, he identified that bosses do more directing and leaders are more collaborative and partnering. Pressing him further, I asked him to tell me some things that he felt a good leader would do. He identified a number of great leadership behaviors.

Here are the 12 characteristics my son identified that strong leaders possess, as well as some additional thoughts about each one.

1. Be open to new ideas. Some bosses think they know everything, so they are not really interested in what anyone else thinks, nor are they willing to consider others’ experience and what changes or adjustments could made. Leaders are open to hearing what others have to say and how they can best contribute to the goal at hand.

2. Solicit everyone’s ideas. Some people are quiet and won’t readily volunteer their thoughts, especially if their ideas seem to run contrary to what others are thinking. Each person has a different experience and enjoys a unique perspective. Leaders who seek to understand those ideas and perspectives may generate learning lessons that would benefit everyone.

3. Willingly discuss challenges and opportunities. Bosses may discuss challenges in the context of blame and accusation. Rather than take the time to really understand what challenges employees are facing, they may blame workers for not following company protocol or procedures. Leaders will seek to uncover the reasons for their employees not performing as expected and then do what they can to provide support and offer additional training and resources as needed.

4. Be approachable. Some bosses rarely take a personal interest in their workers. They can be aloof and unapproachable. This may result in individual team members trying to help and support one another exclusively, rather than going to the boss for help. If team members are new or inexperienced, they may lead one another astray because of the lack of their own experience with the business. Strong leaders take the time to get to know their reports. They invite their people to share concerns and questions and are willing to do all they can to help their team be successful.

5. Consider decision impact. Sometimes bosses make decisions quickly without considering the long-range impact of their decisions. Taking a moment to consider the outcomes and results of those choices on the clients, the employees and the company would save the wasted time, money and frustration that will likely occur as a result of hasty decision-making.

6. Engage with everyone. Sometimes bosses are more interested in the comments of a select few people they know and trust, rather than their entire team. With others, they may not be engaging or even pleasant. As a result, the ill-favored team members may begin to disengage for fear of being responded to negatively. Over time, their performance will also suffer. Leaders should work toward making all their team members feel valued by inviting their opinions and suggestions, noticing the good they are doing and interacting with them regularly.

7. Make decisions. Sometimes supervisors have difficulty making decisions, so they contact other supervisors to solicit their opinions or wait to make a decision until they have received more information from other sources. This takes a lot of time, so efficiency suffers. This unwillingness or reticence to make a decision can lead team members to question the boss’ leadership capability. It is almost as if no decision is better than the wrong decision. Leaders make decisions based on their training, experience and research. They confidently make the choice and move forward, keeping their team on time and on track.

8. Listen and ask questions. Oftentimes bosses interact with their team members only to tell them what to do — not allowing for questions or discussion. When people feel brave enough to ask questions or ask for help, they aren’t given the time to make sure they are understood. In their haste to move forward, bosses may assume they know what team members are asking, so they attempt to answer questions without complete information or follow-up. When this happens, team members usually don’t want to tell their boss that they didn’t get their questions answered or their concerns addressed. Problems continue to go unresolved and results remain the same. Strong leaders will give direction and then allow time to accurately answer any questions that may arise. Asking clarifying questions will help leaders ensure they have truly answered team members’ concerns.

9. Offer encouragement. Some jobs are really difficult. Door-to-door sales, for example, in the summer heat is hard. Sometimes bosses are more interested in making numbers than in supporting team members and encouraging them to do better. When bosses don’t acknowledge the challenges and the effort required to do difficult tasks, they strain working relationships. It’s hard to work with people who don’t seem to care about you. Good leaders will understand what is required of each team member and will support and encourage them in ways that motivate them to do their best.

10. Allow for autonomy. Some bosses seem to be too controlling. It is important to remember that people often learn through personal experience what works and what doesn’t. When something doesn’t work, if possible, individuals should be allowed to figure out why and make the needed improvements. Leaders will check in with workers and invite them to suggest how they might complete their tasks better. If something isn’t working, the leader should have a discussion with that person, invite him or her to offer suggestions of how to improve. We all want to succeed and should be accountable for learning and making needed improvements rather than just being told what to do.

11. Share experience. Our bosses occupy their roles because they are very good at sales. Sharing what works and what doesn’t on a daily basis would help their team members learn from those who have more experience. When bosses withhold information, they limit the growth of team members and keep them from developing their skills quickly. As team members, the challenge is to learn quicker and not continue making the same mistakes. Learning would be greatly accelerated if our leaders shared more of their experience.

12. Shadow performance. Team members, especially younger workers, would value being periodically observed and given feedback about their skills and abilities. While this isn’t always possible due to the bosses’ responsibilities, it is often difficult for team members to know specifically what they need to work on without direct feedback. Leaders could greatly improve the success of team members if they could find a way to provide specific, meaningful feedback — helping them know what to do to improve their performance.

I was very impressed with what my older son learned in a few short weeks of a difficult summer job. His list offers great insights for effective leadership and the deliberate effort that each of us needs to take if we want to lead our team members to succeed.


John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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