Types of Leadership: Are You a Boss, Manager, or Leader?

by Jan 10, 2020Leadership

There isn’t one best answer.

Many of us reach a point in our careers or in the growth of our companies when we find ourselves in a position of having people to report to us. It’s a mark of some professional success. The question arises as to which types of leadership you want to employ when engaging with your team. It is a choice.

It’s been my experience that there are three approaches to working with teams: boss, manager, and leader. While many people use these terms interchangeably, there are actually quite distinct differences between these three approaches. And those differences boil down to the kinds of working relationships you construct with your team. It’s up to you to decide which style might be most effective to get the best results.

Let me explain what I mean.


The term boss is often laden with negative connotations, especially these days with a younger new-age workforce. The role of Michael Scott played by Steve Carrell in the popular television series The Office irreparably damaged the image of bosses everywhere. When a picture of a boss comes to mind, we might think of someone who is aggressive at issuing orders and getting things done–but without giving much time or credence to what anyone else on the team might have to say on the matter. A boss treats communication in a decidedly one-way manner: from the top down. When you work for a boss, you learn to keep your head down and do what you’re told–and nothing else. Formal power is the primary tool used by a boss. The boss approach can work in certain situations. Sometimes it’s ok to play the “boss card”–something I’ve written about before. But it might not be the most effective style in most circumstances.


A classic definition of a manager is someone who guides and directs people in an effort to get them to deliver optimum results. When I think of managers, I think of organizers, allocators, and blockade busters who try to clear the obstacles away from getting the job done. Unlike a boss, a manager might be much more willing to engage in some back-and-forth with their people in an effort to find the best solution to the problem at hand. The downside of a manager is that because they are so focused on the here and now, they typically lack the vision to help guide the team toward creating a future vision for the organization. Even with that limitation, thinking and acting like a manager is a valuable role in an organization–especially large ones where a manager might need to mobilize large teams. Even fast-growth organizations can slow their growth because of a lack of middle management.


In contrast to a boss or manager, a leader is someone who is taking the team and maybe even the organization to a higher place. They are exceptional at inspiring people to work toward future goals and getting the team to understand why those goals matter to them personally. Leaders are also focused on building the best team possible by hiring high-achieving “A players” wherever possible. Leaders worry about what work needs to get done and then delegate to managers to decide how that work should get done.

Using these definitions then, who would you like to work for: a boss, manager, or coach?

The truth is that as an entrepreneur, you might find yourself combining all three of these roles depending on the challenge at hand. As I write in my book, Great CEOs Are Lazy, leaders play the role of a “coach”–while managers are more like “engineers,” where they work on building systems and processes. Bosses may be more like “players,” where they’re jumping in head-first to do the important work themselves.

Ideally, though, you’ll spend the majority of your time playing the role of leader; some of your time as a manager; and only occasional time as boss when a crisis hits.

The organizational context matters as well. Fast-paced entrepreneurial organizations thrive on leadership, but growth will mean managers are needed as well. Larger organizations will be loaded with managers.

So, when it comes to your current approach to engaging your team, are you a boss, manager, or leader? Is that what your organization needs? Finding that perfect mix, where your team responds best, may take some time–but your team, and your organization, will benefit from you asking and answering that question.