By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
Through the years, I have worked for bosses, and been a boss. I’ve had great bosses, and I’ve had horrible bosses, and I have paid attention. I cannot tell you what kind of boss I was; that would be for the people that worked with me to say, but as a boss, I have tried to avoid those things that make bosses horrible, and emulate those that were great.
In other words, I worked hard to be a leader rather than a boss.
But what makes the difference? First of all, let’s understand why employees mess up. There are really only three reasons that employees don’t follow orders (or don’t follow them correctly). Either they don’t know what they are supposed to do, they don’t have the proper training to do it, or they’re being obstinate. It is important to note that, of these three reasons, only one is truly the fault of the employee.
This is a good time for a side note. It is human nature to believe that our opinions are correct. This is a danger for people in leadership positions. If a person in a supervisory position has an employee they like, then in the eye of the supervisor, that employee can do no wrong. The supervisor will forgive this employee for all but the most egregious problems. The employee the supervisor dislikes, even if it’s just that they don’t “hit it off”, that employee can do nothing right. Even the smallest mistakes will be inflated in the mind of the supervisor. This is important for people in supervisory positions to be aware of, and even if they are, it is a very difficult to overcome. What’s more, the supervisor is likely to dismiss any negative reports about the employee they like, and believe even rediculous negative reports about the employee they dislike.
Let’s not assume employees are completely innocent. Some employees understand the need for supervisors, and are supportive unless, of course, the supervisor is terrible. There are also those employees that will never like their supervisor, not because of the individual, but rather because of their position.
So what makes a leader, and what makes a boss? You’ve heard a lot of these before, but they’re true. A boss will tell you what to do, but a leader will work to get you on board. I’ve always tried hard to be sure that those people who worked with me (not “for me”) understood, the reason when I asked them to do something. I heard their criticisms, was open to modify my requests when appropriate (but not always) and was always open to explaining my reason except when my supervisor asked that I keep certain things quiet (I always followed my supervisor’s orders, in part because I understand that there were things that I may not know that they do).
A leader will always give away credit, but take the blame. This may have lead to problems for me, but if I had it to do over again, I would do it the same way. Whenever things went well, I always gave credit to my employees. It might have been my leadership that lead to the successes, but to my supervisors, I gave the credit away. What’s more, when there were problems, I took the responsibility. This includes when I’ve had those obstinate employees seeking my release and messing up as a result. The simple reality is that, the supervisor gets the blame regardless of the circumstances when the mistakes are made. I always stood behind my people in the good times, and in front of them in the bad.
The most important difference might well be behavior. A leader models the desired behavior, a boss will not. This leads to an interesting truth. Anybody can be a leader whether or not they hold the title. Recently I worked as a sales associate, but only for a few months. When I left, one of my colleagues, a manager in another department and with far more experience in the field than I had, made the comment that, because of my time there, things at the store would always be better.
You can be a leader. It’s not a title, it’s an attitude. Leadership is looking out for other people, taking responsibility when appropriate, living the way you believe people should behave.