How Not to Be a Leader

I’m pleased to say that this week’s guest post is written by a member of The Ghannad Group other than myself, namely Naveed Ghannad. Naveed serves as our Director of Insight Development and has been instrumental in improving the quality of our content and making massive contributions to the conceptual development of our upcoming projects, and will be the co-author of our upcoming book, scheduled to be released in January 2018. Naveed also produces our podcasts and leads many projects such as The Transformative Leader e-book, available on Amazon, and our forthcoming audiobook. Naveed graduated cum laude with honors from Colgate University with degrees in Religion and Asian Studies, and he most recently worked as an assistant teacher at an international Montessori school before joining The Ghannad Group. There is much more I can say about his talents, but I should stop bragging about my son and let you get to his post, which I personally enjoyed reading and learned more than a few things from.

If you'd prefer to skip to The Bottom Line, please scroll all the way down. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the entire post.

Through his book and blogs and talks, Amir has expounded a great deal on what it means to be a leader, specifically what it takes to be a Transformative Leader and the success and fulfillment available to anyone who chooses to adopt the mindset and behaviors of Transformative Leaders in their personal or professional lives. While he has done an excellent job so far—if, as his primary collaborator, I do say so myself—I wanted to take the opportunity, after reading his recent blog post, to delve deeper into a topic that he has been unwont to discuss at length, which is this: What it means to not be a leader.

That may sound a bit strange and it is understandable that it is a somewhat neglected topic in the leadership development conversation, because developing leaders is all about “feeding the grass, instead of trying to kill the weeds.” And, of course, emphasizing the distinction between leaders and “not-leaders” runs the risk of polemicizing the relationship between the two groups, creating drama that would quickly derail any attempt at constructive conversation, much less a training session or workshop. Also, as a general rule of thumb, when a member of a certain group (in this case, leaders) goes around telling others that he/she is superior because he/she is part of that group, other people tend not to listen because that person is being a jerk, and no one wants to agree with jerks unless they are also a jerk. So, not only would it be a terrible idea for spreading the message of Transformative Leadership and leadership development in general, but acting in that way also literally goes against what it means to be a leader, as we will see later.

With that said, and having no such professional strictures that would serve to temper my words, I would like to dive headfirst into the treacherous waters of what we might call the via negativa of leadership development, that is, defining what a leader is by exploring what a leader is not.

But before we do that, I should mention that this blog post may be a bit different in structure, tone, and length from the ones you are used to reading here. It may come across at times as formulaic, stream-of-consciousness, or even blatantly obvious, and it will be riddled with hyperlinks to various resources across the internet for further reading or watching. For everyone’s sake, this post will attempt not to be exhaustive, because I know that most of our readers are busy professionals who need to get on with their day’s business, although I hope you will forgive me if it is a little longer than usual. In any case, if this particular post doesn’t sit well with you, take heart in the fact that we will return with your regularly scheduled content in 2 weeks. With the caveat lector out of the way, let’s start with perhaps the most common misconception about what a leader is not, and that is: a boss.

To be clear, when I say “boss,” I am using it here as a catch-all term meaning anyone who is in charge, who has formal or informal authority, for better or worse, over a group of people, department, organization, and so on. This could be a manager, or the captain of a sports team, the head of a household, the prime minister/king/president of a country, and so on. The point is that a boss is someone who operates on a different level of whatever hierarchy is in place and who has authority to act to protect whatever interests they deem worthwhile.

Note that I am not defining a boss as “bad” in opposition to a leader being “good”; there have been many leaders, like cult leaders and dictators, that have used their influence to make the world a worse place, and there are many bosses who are excellent at their functions and because of which the world runs that much more smoothly. However, note as well that, although neither one is better or worse than the other and there can be considerable overlap between the two, a boss is not the same thing as a leader, and it is important that we know the difference.

While a boss is defined by the formal authority or power they wield, a leader is not. A leader need not occupy a particular position in an organization, community, family, or government, because a leader is defined by their level of influence on and responsibility to those who freely choose to follow them, rather than their ability to enforce compliance externally. A leader is anyone whose actions, as John Quincy Adams put it, “inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more,” regardless of their formal position within society or the organization. Within the context of the distinction being made in this post, a leader says, “Follow me and you will have/experience X,” while a mere boss says, “Follow me or else Y will happen to you.” To put it another way, a boss can at best gain compliance, but hardly ever inspire commitment.

Again, this is not a bad thing in itself, because compliance is the bare minimum requirement in an organization or community to ensure that commitment is even available to be given. It is difficult for an organization to have committed employees if people rarely show up to work or if paychecks are not issued regularly, just as it is difficult to inspire your children to follow your example if you never instilled in them a sense of discipline using your authority as a parent. It is important to recognize that, while leaders must occasionally ensure compliance to inspire commitment, ensuring compliance is the sine qua non of being a boss.

Consequently, the next distinction between bosses and leaders is that bosses are all about “saying” and “doing,” whereas leaders are about “being.” Because a boss is someone whose only function it is to ensure compliance, it is not necessary that those under them agree with their conduct as long as they do as they are told. A boss does not require endorsement or for people to be bought in to their worldview or values to be able to exercise their authority. A boss doesn’t need to be similar to those they are in charge of, and they don’t even need to be liked by those they are in charge of, to be able to do their job. And this is where things can begin to go awry and where hypocrisy can start to creep in. After all, we have another word for someone you don’t like but must do what they say simply because they have more power than you, and that word is “bully.”

As for the slippery slope of hypocrisy, since bosses need only guard the interests of a particular group, and not their values, is part of their MO to tell those they are in charge of, “Do as I say, not as I do,” thereby letting themseleve off the hook for any need for personal development of their own and setting up a double standard whereby their position in the hierarchy affords them greater leeway in their conduct or morals than those below them. Of course, it is not mere moralizing to decry such tactics; the fact is, because of the way humans work, “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t actually work for every long.

Since we all naturally learn through emulating others and we all have a deep sense of fairness, especially when it comes to others enjoying benefits that we are barred from, hypocrisy is always self-defeating. To wit, a person can only benefit from hypocrisy so long as others agree not to use their hypocrisy to justify becoming hypocritical themselves. Hypocrisy is only advantageous when it is not the norm, but as long as hypocrisy is present, it threatens to become the norm. That’s why, “Four legs good, two legs bad,” eventually morphs into, “Four legs good, two legs better,” and this is why the “as I say” eventually becomes diametrically opposed to the “as I do,” and these “imaginary facts” eventually become the detriment of all of society.

Being a boss, being in charge, means that one primarily governs by force or threat of it, either explicitly or implicitly, and that one is justified in doing so because one occupies a different level on the hierarchy than others. Because of this, it is said that bosses push those under their care toward a specific outcome, rather than pull them toward a particular goal. However, whereas bosses manage people by fiat, for better or worse, leaders do not have the same luxury.

Leaders understand that actions speak louder than words, and they understand that the only way one can ever truly lead is by example. Whereas a boss can get by merely protecting the interests of a certain group, the leader is tasked with representing the values of those they are responsible for, and the only way they can do that is through their "being." Consequently, while bosses are focused on ensuring external compliance, leaders are focused internally on the example they are setting for others. Where the motto of the boss is, “Do as I say, not as I do,” the motto of the leader is, “Be authentic, as I am being, and you will become the best version of yourself.”

Where the motto of the boss is, “Do as I say, not as I do,” the motto of the leader is, “Be authentic, as I am being, and you will become the best version of yourself.”

Because a leader represents the values of a community or organization through their very being, there is very little room for hypocrisy to creep in and corrupt their conduct. As soon as a leader gives in to hypocrisy, they cease to be a leader. Similarly, because a leader must represent the community or organization they are leading, it does not behoove them to claim special status within any particular hierarchy, but rather to act as a bridge between the levels of whatever hierarchy already exists. As a result, a leader, if they are being honest with themselves and with those who count on them for leadership, has no basis on which to justify any kind of double standard for themselves. A leader does not operate under different standards than their followers, except when their own standards are higher and stricter. A boss, having established themselves as on a different level from those they are in charge of, often does the opposite.

While a boss may have some kind of implicit mandate from the people, to lead effectively, a leader must actually be one of the people; one must be a servant to truly be a leader. After all, the power of a leader is that he/she pulls others towards them or towards a vision they have created for the future, rather than pushing them in any particular direction. And it is only possible to pull others towards you, to inspire them, when they look at you and want to emulate you and become like you. And the fact is, people have never been convinced to follow others simply because they were “right,” but rather leaders have only ever convinced others to embrace their vision by embodying and exhibiting the human benefits of doing so, through their behavior.

While a boss can produce followers or at best, other bosses, a truly great leader knows that by exemplifying what it means to be a leader, they create other leaders through their example. A great leader knows that if they can transform every person in the organization into a leader for themselves, the organization and its members will experience untold levels of success and fulfillment. Because of this, every great leader knows that their first and most important follower is themselves. They also know to heed the wise words of one the greatest leaders there ever was: “Physician, heal thyself.”

Now, at this point, you may be saying, “If bosses are so liable to losing their way and leaders are so much more effective, why would anyone choose to be or follow a boss over a leader?” Well, that’s a good question, and the answer is that there are massive advantages to operating as or under a boss rather than a leader, which I will attempt to give a brief survey of below.

The first and easiest-to-explain reason to favor a boss over a leader is that, for better or worse, bosses are equipped to get quantitative results and get them fast. (How they get them is another story entirely). Because a boss doesn’t need to be endorsed or approved of by the people they have authority over, there is theoretically no limit to the values they will transgress in seeking to achieve a certain outcome. A boss can certainly put in place policies unilaterally that will benefit one group over another, but the very thing that enables them to do this—acting without regard for their approval or representation of those under them—also makes them a liability. If you are benefitting from the actions or policies of a “mad dog” boss that has no investment in your values or approval, then “may the odds be ever in your favor,” as they say, but I wouldn’t count on that; you may be riding the wave right now, but eventually every wave comes crashing down. In the case of a boss using unsavory methods to secure a certain outcome or interest, it can also in some sense taint or shame the recipients of that interest, as if they were receiving stolen goods. On the other hand, a leader may not always be more effective at securing a specific outcome within a specific timeframe, but those who look to them for leadership can always rest easy knowing that they didn’t “sell their souls” to achieve their goal, and that always pays exponentially greater dividends in the long run.

The other reasons for choosing a boss over a leader are a bit more esoteric and complex, so I hope you’ll bear with me here.

Beyond the precarious arrangement of trading servility for one’s interests or a certain outcome, I believe another significant reason for choosing a boss over a leader is fear, specifically fear of freedom (in the existential sense, not the patriotic sense) and all that entails. Pure freedom and what it implies about the world is, perhaps rightly, utterly terrifying in a deep existential sense. Freedom is of the same species as the unknown and unknowable and infinite possibility and as failure and as meaninglessness and as nothingness or death. We are habitually inclined, for various reasons, to try and distract ourselves from our own freedom, through making excuses, sabotaging ourselves from reaching our fullest potential, keeping ourselves busy with various trivial activities, and so on. The reason we do this is because absolute freedom implies absolute responsibility, and absolute responsibility implies absolute commitment, and absolute commitment implies the possibility of abject failure. So one of the biggest advantages of having a boss is that one is freed from the burden of freedom and thus the burden of failure.

Why is this? Let’s examine the counterfactual with the example of a Transformative Leader. A great leader, High Impact Leader, Servant Leader, or Transformative Leader is a leader who is obliged to give up all of their stories about themselves and the past and is tasked with creating a grand vision of the future of their community, organization, or world…from nothing. A leader is charged with something that very few deities have even been tasked with: creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing. It should go without saying, when you create from nothing, without being able to use your past or stories about yourself as excuses for failure, you are 100% responsible for what comes about from your actions, either good or bad. You cannot blame anyone or anything else but yourself, and suffice it to say, this is not for the faint of heart or for those who have not grasped the paradox of perfection.

Ideals should inspire us to surpass ourselves, which we need to aspire to do if we are to be truly human, and which we can never actually do, exactly because we are truly human. Ideals are tools for inspiration, not realities in themselves.
— Norman Fischer

It goes without saying that many people are either unprepared or unwilling or feel they do not deserve to accept this level of responsibility for the world or their lives, should they find it thrust upon them. As one philosopher has noted, “We are afraid of the enormity of the possible.” Freedom is both great and terrible, and the fear of it, one might say, is the beginning of wisdom, though not its end.  (Abraham Maslow noted this tendency for those who had reached a point where they had the opportunity to self-actualize, but chose, consciously or subconsciously, to reject that opportunity.) They may panic and attempt to handicap themselves or inauthentically pretend that they aren’t free or, alternatively, find someone who is willing to take ownership of their freedom for them. In exchange for this "self-domestication," the person who becomes a steward of one's freedom ostensibly provides security and comfort and acts as a scapegoat when things go wrong.  In this regard, the stereotypical boss we have been discussing is the ideal candidate.

For a person to be able to live, he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.
— Leo Tolstoy

The end result of this offloading of responsibility is a kind of absurd catch-22 situation in which neither the boss nor those he/she is in charge of are willing to take responsibility or be held accountable for anything that goes wrong. When the boss makes a mistake or does something that doesn’t represent the values of the organization, those they are in charge of can claim it isn’t their fault because the boss is in charge and he/she doesn’t represent their values. On the other hand, when the boss is criticized, he/she can blame whoever put him/her in charge for their lack of judgment or he/she can blame whoever they are in charge of for their lack of compliance. In a situation like this, where no one is willing to take the blame, no one is willing to take responsibility. And when no one takes responsibility, no one takes ownership. And when no one takes ownership, nothing gets done because of the boss, but rather only in spite of the boss.

It hardly needs to be said that a leader is not only willing to take responsibility for their own shortcomings, but is also the first one to take responsibility for the shortcomings of anyone who looks to them for guidance. Whereas a boss requires the illusion of perfection to justify their position of authority over others, and consequently sees taking blame as a sign of weakness, a leader understands that with great responsibility comes great influence. It is not the task to deny reality, that we are all imperfect, but to embrace it and acknowledge it in themselves and show others how to deal with it constructively and without shame

While there is much more to say on the subject, I believe I hear the band playing me off the stage, figuratively speaking. If you read this far, I appreciate your attention, but let’s reintroduce the Bottom Line for this post for those who didn’t make it, through no fault of their own.


A boss, that is, someone who is in charge and has formal or informal authority over a community or organization, is not the same thing as a leader. Not all bosses are bad and not all leaders are good, but a leader will always ultimately be more effective than a boss. Bosses push, that is enforce compliance through their words or actions, while leaders pull others to them by inspiring commitment through who they are being. You would follow a leader, but you would likely only ever comply with the demands of a boss.

If someone does not represent your values, if you do not want to become like them, if you wouldn’t want your children to become like them, if you wouldn’t want to work for them or have them work for you, then that person is a boss, not a leader. While you may benefit from working with a boss as opposed to a leader, you will only do so at your own peril. This is because, while a leader ideally represents you and your values, a boss more rightly replaces you and your freedom in exchange for a shared interest.

Whether we realize it or not, we are all leaders in our own right. No one can live their life without being looked to for leadership and without setting an example for another person to look up to, even if that other person is oneself. So, leader: lead thyself. 

Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at

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