The business world is saturated with people walking around with fancy titles and labels. Often "boss" and "leader" are considered to be synonyms, yet a lot of blogposts out there scream otherwise. So are these words indeed interchangeable? Or is one of them always better than the other?

Let’s have a look at their official definitions, straight out of the dictionary.

Boss [Baws, Bos]: (noun) a person who makes decisions, exercises authority and dominates.

Leader [Lee-der]: (noun) a person who guides and directs.

The conclusion you can draw from their definitions, is that they are anything but similar, if not opposites. The only thing they have in common, is the fact that they are both nouns, (among 700.000 other words in the English language).

So what are the differences?

You can already hear it in the connotation of both words. Boss carries a more negative tone than Leader. When people think of a boss, they imagine someone in an overpriced suit, sitting in a master chair at his wooden desk in an office, separated from his workforce, who is feared by everyone. On the other hand, when envisioning a leader, you think of a person that is sharing his ideas with his team members in brainstorm sessions and who does a tour of the office on a daily basis to assess the wellbeing of all employees.

Cold hard tyrant vs helpful super(hero)visor?

But apart from these stereotypical mental pictures we’re carrying around, there are some genuine differences in what being a boss or being a leader entails.

When people look at a few of these differences, they draw rapid conclusions: 'A boss is the cold hard tyrant and a leader is the person everybody wants as a supervisor'. So, what is the message here? Don’t be a boss, be a leader?

Context, context and context

Unfortunately, it’s not that black and white. Being a leader isn’t always better than being a boss. A boss is easily seen as the evildoer by the people who are in direct contact with him. They experience a boss as authoritarian and relentless, while people on a distance might consider his behavior to be honest, effective and righteous. Bottomline is: it all comes down to context. Below are some very recognizable situations that highlight the importance of the circumstances of a situation.

Context 1: Decision making with a firm deadline

There is a strict deadline to rectify a big communication mistake with one of your biggest customers. If you don't respond to the troublesome situation before the end of the workday, you will not only lose that customer, but this customer could possibly spread the word about the bad experience they've encountered with you as a company.

I think you would agree that it would not be constructive to plan a team meeting and host a brainstorm session where everyone gets to bring up ideas. Right now, it’s time to act fast thus it’s up to the person in charge to make a decision, based on the information and knowledge there is at hand. Involving the whole team here to work out an action plan would mean losing too much time. Due to the high stakes and the time pressure, it's better that the person in charge cuts the cord and takes on a boss position.

Context 2: Moral damage control

Due to some errors in thorough follow-up, the sales team lost a big opportunity. The loss of this deal has a big impact, not just financially, but also morally.

You, as a sales manager in charge of the team were stunned by this news. Realistically, you have two options to cope with the situation at hand. The first option is to blame the members of your team, stamp around with an "I told you so"-attitude and take away responsibilities and maybe even bonuses of the whole team. When you look at this situation objectively, you could realize that this would have no positive effect on anything or anyone. So instead, you could organize a workshop with all the team to discuss new possible ways of approaching the sales cycle, so future mistakes can be avoided. Acting like a leader, where you join in on responsibility, is the right option here.

Context 3: The riddle called autonomy

You're a new manager at a company, responsible for a team of 15 people. As you've been reading up on the latest trends in the business world, you are aware of the importance of autonomy you give to your team members. As a leader, you decide you want to give that autonomy to your team members. In your first team meeting, you communicate the idea of autonomy and more precisely, the possibility for the team members to work remote. This announcement is welcomed by the team members with a standing ovation, yet the boss inside you adds an important condition. You stress the fact that this new privilege will only remain in place if the results are there and that this can only work if there is mutual trust in the team.

As a true leader, you gave autonomy to your team and you created an atmosphere of trust. At the same time as a boss, you remained strict and emphasized the importance of the results and the expected level of productivity.

Wrap up

The simple conclusion is that there will always be the notion of context. There is no superior version of a manager. Not as a boss, nor as leader. Depending on the situation, one of both will be more beneficial. It comes down to being decisive when it matters and adapting your behavior and attitude depending on the situation you’re in.