The Difference between a “Leader” and a “Boss”

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Libby Elrod, RD, LD
Years ago I worked with an individual that truly needed feedback to improve his relationship with the work team. When we were discussing options he could implement quickly and with no additional cost, I mentioned how far a sincere “Thank you” can go to motivate individuals. His response was, “I say ‘Thank You’ to all my employees every two weeks. It is called a Pay Check.” I quickly made a mental ‘note to self’ to NEVER be that kind of boss. I am sure everyone has a story to tell about a boss just like that.

In healthcare, we witness numerous types of behaviors and not just in patients. In my opinion, there are two types of leaders: Formal Leaders – those with a title – like Director or Manager; and Informal Leaders – individuals with no management title but who truly engage, inspire and motivate those around them.

Sometimes those informal leaders have more influence on their work environment and co-workers than formal members of management. So the question is… what distinguishes a “leader” from a “boss”?

The answer is their behavior – how they treat people. When you take the time to observe and analyze the behaviors, it becomes apparent that a boss expects people to do as expected because ‘I said so’. For example, I am the boss and you have to do what I say because I control your schedule, work environment, promotions, etc. When you observe a leader in the same situation, a leader expects people to do as asked because the ‘why’ is included along with feedback, even if the feedback is for your improvement in that situation. The “why” we do things is built-in – because it improves patient outcomes, makes our process more efficient or makes our workflow smoother.

Over my 40 years in healthcare, I have worked with some outstanding leaders; I consider many of them to be my mentors. Some examples of great leadership qualities and behaviors include: active listening, showing empathy, recognizing high performers publicly, encouraging new ideas and remembering to bring a servant’s heart and kindness to work every day whatever your title may be.

The opposite is also true. We have all had experiences in ‘difficult’ situations where the boss dismissed a well thought out idea or talked down to someone in front of peers. Those negative behaviors have taught me how not to treat co-workers. We all know who that ‘boss’ is, because they are the one we talk about over dinner. And, don’t kid yourself, our co-workers do go home and talk about their boss with their friends and family.

When we invest in our management team to develop leadership skills, I believe it sends a strong message that we care about our work environment. Enhancing those skills enriches the work environment and helps to build effective teams. But, we don’t need to wait for our employer to provide a class. One of my favorite ‘leadership development’ tools is the movie, Remember the Titans. Next time you watch that movie, don’t focus on the story line. Instead focus on the behaviors of the conflicted leaders and the team. It will make you think differently about your leadership style.

Making a difference in someone’s life is a privilege and you never know how much you influence those you work with. Take the time to reflect on those who have influenced your behavior in a positive way and ask yourself……Are you a leader or a boss?

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