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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Are You Being a Real Leader or Just Playing the Role of "Boss?"

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Are you playing at being a boss, or are you being a leader—as in throwing your whole self into helping bring out the best in the people around you? People who play the role are dime a dozen, and even the best of them eventually wear out the people around them. But leaders know they have a chance to positively impact the lives of others.

Related: How to Make the Leap From Being a Boss to Being a Leader, Explained in One Handy Chart

Every healthy manager-direct report relationship’s guided by a set of two contracts. The paper contract is the job description. It explains the expectations of a role and what the person needs to do to do in order to succeed in the role. (It’s important, but it’s boring and it over-simplifies the situation.)

The unwritten contract’s based on mutual trust and respect—characteristics that are too often overlooked by bosses. Psychologist and pioneer in workplace culture Harry Levinson called this agreement the “Psychological Contract” and it’s what separates the great leaders from those who are just climbing the ladder with no regard for the people below them.

It consists of the following:

1. The Relationship’s a True Partnership

The best managers view their relationship with their employees as partnerships. They expect people to do their job, while respectfully treating them like the unique individuals they are. In exchange, they work to help the employee grow into their strengths and natural talents, even if that means eventually losing the employee because he or she is promoted or decides to leave the company altogether.

2. The Relationship Is Honest

The employee then rewards his or her manager’s support and respect by doing his or her best and telling the truth, even when talking about the truth feels uncomfortable. That means, even if you disagree with your boss, you speak up.

3. The Relationship Involves Acknowledging Both Parties Are Human Beings

Someone who’s “just a boss” only cares that the work gets done and has no interest in what it took to get there, the struggles that went on, or any tools that would’ve made it easier. Whereas, the best managers care about the role and the person who’s doing it—and it’s their attention to each person that shows their commitment to being a leader. They don’t just want results, they want to help facilitate the process.

How to Make the Leap

New or overwhelmed managers might wonder: “But how can I treat every person as a unique individual when I am overwhelmed with tasks from my own boss, who most definitely doesn’t care about what kind of relationship I have with my employees? She just wants me to get the job done.” And it’s true—it’s not easy, especially if you supervise a lot of people. But there are a few things you can do:

Get to Know Your Team

Learn about your people and what is important to them. For example, some will appreciate it when you ask how their weekend or time off was—others find those sorts of questions too personal. Take it upon yourself to find one thing (and one way) to communicate with each person about something that’s not related to the work at hand.

Focus on the “Growing Edge”

The “growing edge” is that elusive skill or talent that your direct reports haven’t yet mastered but are working toward. Noticing people’s progress on something they care about actually helps them make even more progress. So when you see a milestone passed, no matter how small, say something, out loud.

Share Their Impact

Show people how their work makes a positive difference—especially those who work behind the scenes. Employees who spend a lot of time in low visibility roles can easily feel anonymous. Remind them how what they are doing helps not only the organization, but other people.

As Moe Carrick writes in the article, Why Truly Effective Leaders Love to Lead, those who are best suited to for leadership roles do three things: “1. They see their jobs as connectors and enablers of the success of others. 2. They consciously create space for people to be themselves. 3. They openly participate with their whole hearts,” meaning they lead with their heads and their hearts.

Leaders and bosses have only one thing in common: Eventually their employees’ leave. The difference is those who work for leaders are likely to get promoted while the people who work for bosses eventually get fed up and quit (or, worse, stay and hate their jobs). If you want to see your team succeed and thrive, take the time to see them for the unique individuals they are, the payoffs will benefit everyone.