Three Bosses and a Leader

Photo by  Pana Vasquez  on  Unsplash

Bosses come in all forms and types. While the most basic definition of a boss is “the person in charge,” not all bosses are created equal. By far, the most common type of boss is the standard, inoffensive “just doing my job” boss. They faithfully carry out their administrative duties, hire and fire people as needed, and settle into their niche of maintaining the status quo harmoniously within the organization. They don’t negatively impact their people, but they don’t necessarily leave a memorable mark on their lives either. This standard type of boss is somewhere in the middle of the bell curve, and of course there’s nothing wrong with this. But it is when we get to the outer edges of that bell curve, that’s when things get interesting. On the edges is where you find the outliers or archetypal bosses, both good and bad, and that’s what I’d like to explore briefly today.

Before we get started, a note on terminology. Since we are talking about three types of a bosses and one type of leader, I want to clarify what the difference is between those terms, for the purposes of this post. A boss is, as mentioned before, “the person in charge,” in the sense that they hold a position of authority or power and you are obliged to do what they say lest you suffer the consequences of insubordination. That may sound pretty sinister, but it need not be. Under this definition, a parent counts as a boss to their child, a teacher is the boss of their students, and a military commander is the boss of a soldier, and none of these relationships are improper or malicious. On the other hand, a leader does not necessarily have to be in a position of power or authority over others, in the sense of setting rules that others are compelled to obey, but rather a leader occupies a position of influence that may be formal or informal. No one is obligated to do what a leader says, but they are inspired to freely choose to act in a certain way based on the model provided by the leader’s own behavior. To put it another way, a leader embodies an ideal that others would like to emulate in their own life, while a boss is simply someone who must be obeyed regardless of whether one wants to be like them or not. Remember that, while not all bosses are leaders, and not all leaders are necessarily bosses, they aren’t mutually exclusive either; you can be one or the other, both, or neither.

Using my favorite saying—“I am the one and it’s not about me!”—as a framework, in today’s post, I’d like to demonstrate one of the key distinctions between bosses and leaders, and I’d like to do this with two specific intentions. First, to have you examine which category of the four types of bosses below you most closely resemble. Secondly, to have you take a closer look at the kind of boss or leader you are following to make sure you are offering your loyalty to someone who has actually earned it, i.e. someone that you can be proud to openly emulate and serve.

One of the most important steps one can take on the way to becoming a leader is learning to be great follower first. A critical step in that process is to choose a leader worth following.

I recently had the honor of making the acquaintance of Mr. Jimmy Collins, the former President and COO of Chick-fil-A for 33 years, who reported directly to the legendary founder and CEO of the company, the late S. Truett Cathy. Jimmy was kind enough to send me an autographed copy of his book, Creative Followership - In the Shadow of Greatness. I have only had the book for a day, but having read a few pages and having watched a couple of videos on Jimmy’s talk, it has reaffirmed to me that one of the most important steps one can take on the way to becoming a leader is learning to be great follower first. A critical step in that process is to choose a leader worth following. Jimmy’s advice is that if you find yourself working for a bad boss, you have only two choices: “Either get on board and support the boss or fire him.” Either you take the first option and give up all of your complaints about the boss from then on, or you take the second option and act according to your conscience, but make no mistake, you don’t get to have it both ways.

By “firing the boss,” he means to simply choose not to work for that boss anymore, by either leaving the company or transferring to another department. This isn’t an easy choice to make, but it’s better than the alternative. The reason the first option–getting on board and supporting the boss despite your objections–is the worse option if you work for someone you cannot respect is that you end up constantly compromising your values and principles, and even if you make the boss happy, you will have lost something much more valuable in the form of your dignity, self-respect, and integrity. In the end, you become little more than a puppet for a boss you could not stand and a cause you do not believe in. I’m sure we can all think of a few people who have found themselves in that quandary and at best, ended up cutting their losses and jumping ship or at worst, cast aside everything they stood for and ended up going down with the ship and its captain.

On the flip side, it can be quite liberating to leave a bad boss, whether you make the choice to separate or they do. As a person who is a firm believer in being loyal to the boss, I can tell you from experience, there is no better feeling than waking up in the morning and remembering that you no longer work for a boss that you have no business supporting. And I also know from experience, that it is a joy to work for and support a boss who you know has your best interest at heart and who labors right alongside you in moving toward a common vision.

Among the very important characteristics that distinguish bad bosses and great leaders are two distinct mindsets and the ensuing behavior. They are: 1. Whether the boss is willing to take responsibility, or if he/she is always passing the buck; and 2. Whether the boss is focused on his/her success, or he/she is focused on the the organization's success and a greater purpose. I sum these qualities up my leadership mantra, namely, “I am the one and It’s not about me!” No matter where they show up on the organizational chart, people tend to fall into one of the four quadrants shown on the figure below, depending on which end of the spectrum they are in on the two characteristics I mentioned. Bosses that I call great leaders are the Transformative Leaders whose mindset and behavior demonstrates those qualities shown in quadrant 1. Others, namely, the Buddy, the Dictator, and the Narcissist, fall somewhere in the spectrum of “okay boss” to “horrible boss.”

A leader embodies an ideal that others would like to emulate in their own life, while a boss is simply someone who must be obeyed regardless of whether one wants to be like them or not.

The figure is intended to depict the characteristics on each end of the spectrum, as well as the general experience of what it’s like to report to each type of boss. Naturally, the Narcissist is the polar opposite of the Transformative Leader, as he is unwilling to ever take responsibility for anything and everything is all about him. As I have pointed out many times before, if everything is all about you, you cannot truly be the one, because you are so focused on the implication of every event and action and word on your person to the point that you are unable to put the greater mission of the organization at the forefront. The other type bosses share some characteristics with The Transformative Leader and can make adjustments in one dimension or the other to migrate to being and showing up as a Transformative Leader.

Keep in mind, that these represent idealized archetypes of these different bosses; no one person fits only into one category, and we all exhibit characteristics of each of these quadrants in different situations and at different times. Similarly, because some of these represent the extremes of the bell curve, no one person is a perfect example of any of these archetypes.

It’s important to note that there is a Transformative Leader inside each of us, but the reason we don’t show up that way is that something inside of us is holding us back. To migrate in the direction of Quadrant 1, one must do two things: First, commit to a cause greater than oneself, take responsibility for it, proactively pursue it, and guide others to do the same. Secondly, one must shift focus off of oneself and onto one’s impact on the world and others, be humble, and serve others. Combining these two factors in balance gives a leader the empowerment that comes from being committed to a cause greater than himself, while eliminating the disempowerment that comes from getting in their head and making everything mean something about them.

Quadrant Boss small.jpg

About the Author
Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results.
Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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