Whilst the top job in organisations is occupied by the hierarchical boss, that doesn’t necessarily make them the leader.

The behaviours required to secure the top position can be quite different from those that make an excellent leader, creating bosses that are more followers than they are leaders.

Many at the top of the hierarchy have been engaged in highly competitive and self-focused behaviour to secure their role over internal and external competitors.

In doing so, they likely over-emphasised their achievements and focused on delivery of measurable tasks to prove competency.

This is a very different set of criteria to those that make a good leader.  Of course, leaders need ambition and capabilities to be competitive and deliver successful outcomes. However, their competitive nature needs to be focused at opposing organisations’ services and products, not other people.

So what’s the difference between a boss and a leader?

Reactionary v Progressive

Whereas a boss executes reactions to situations, a real leader foresees such challenges and deliberately develops a plan that dispatches the risks to the irrelevant bin before they become an issue. Good leaders will see these issues as opportunities to be leveraged for competitive advantage.

A great leader has the ability to proactively strategise their behavioural approach and then to adapt within the moment and context. They develop leadership insight from anticipating situations and outcomes and learning as they do this.

Leaders listen to other people and engage with them about options and ideas, focusing on the future rather than the past. In doing so they challenge their followers to support them as their ideas have been incorporated and they want to be part of the joint success.

They view the past as a relevant foundation for learning, not something that will drive them towards a range of innovative options to generate a sustainable future – faster than their competitors.

Leadership success comes from causing change and then adaptively leading your people through to the new world on the other side. All this happens while the competition is still wondering what happened and why.

You can evolve from a boss to a great leader by learning to consciously determine how to behave in advance of critical moments and generating willing followers who trust your judgment because of the successful outcomes you have generated (not because of the office you occupy and the orders you give).

Dr. Shelley is the author of The Organizational Zoo and Being a Successful Knowledge Leader. He leads several professional development and mentoring communities, is the CEO of Intelligent Answers and co-ordinator of Knowledge Management and Project Management Leadership in the MBA and Master of Project Management at RMIT University.

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