Be a Leader, Not Just a Boss

William Riggs
Billy Riggs' Leadership Pyramid


A boss and a leader are not the same things. In fact, they’re almost opposites. A boss is one who employs a series of carrots and sticks, perks and threats, promises and punishments to leverage employees into doing tasks they’d rather not do. The boss must convince staff members that their lives will be less miserable if they do as they’re told than if they disobey or goof off, and remind them of this fact regularly lest the effect of the threatened consequences (or promised benefits) be forgotten and wear off. The boss labors under the assumption that workers don’t want to do their jobs, so they must be constantly coerced into doing them.

Moreover the boss must make good on every promise and threat or the effect will be lost. A warning that goes unenforced even once decreases the influence of all of them. Whatever undesirable behavior goes unpunished is, in effect, being promoted. If a solitary employee comes in late and the boss says nothing about it, before long lots of employees are coming in late. For the boss, a workday resembles a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole. Never can he take his eyes off of his crew. Infractions must be pounded into submission the moment they pop up. If the boss tires of the task for a short while, the “moles” learn that they can act with impunity, popping out of their cubicles to slip out early, or engaging in online shopping during work hours, or chatting with friends when they should be working. The prospect of taking a day off or a vacation becomes a nerve-wracking calculation for the boss, who must estimate how long the warden can be away before the inmates burn the establishment to the ground.


A leader, on the other hand, is one who inspires employees to do as they should out of their own personal desire to do so. President Dwight Eisenhower once delivered the best definition of leadership I’ve ever heard: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” There, in a nutshell, the General summarized the essence of leadership and highlighted its clear differences from the role of a boss. A boss seeks to impose his or her will on the employee; the leader finds a way to fan the flames of passion within each person so that they do their jobs because they genuinely want to do so.

Though it might sound or feel manipulative on the surface, this process lies at the core of leadership. While some might recoil at the notion of arousing a desire in others to do what the leader wants, the undeniable fact remains: highly influential people are those who persuade other people to see and do things the leader wants done. Parents accomplish this with children, teachers with students, coaches with athletes, politicians with constituents, and managers with their reports. Said another way, leaders lead. Some wag quipped long ago that “he who thinks he is leading, but has no one following, is only going for a walk.” A person is not a leader simply because someone inscribed the title “Supervisor” or “Manager” or “CEO” on their job description, door, or business card. You are a leader in direct proportion to how many people are following you and the degree to which they are willing to follow. They will follow only when their desire to do so is awakened.

The leader accomplishes this not primarily via the promise of tangible rewards, but by appealing to nobler goals, awakening humanitarian instincts, or engendering such love and respect from those around that no one is willing to let their standard-bearer down. The military leader reminds the troops of their duty to their country, the righteousness of their cause, and the vulnerability of the young and weak in the face of a ruthless enemy. The police chief raises the specter of the societal and personal cost that will be incurred if cops fail to do their best, and of the benefits of law and order for all if they succeed. A school superintendent speaks often of the power and responsibility of teachers and staff to alter the trajectory of students’ lives from one that leads toward poverty or prison to one of good citizenship and prosperity. They are regularly reminded that their work will impact society for generations to come. A business owner holds before employees the opportunity to become their absolute best, to be admired for their excellence, to operate at the peak of their potential, to be a member of a winning team or to share a role in something truly remarkable.

The reward for the leader’s efforts is the freedom to take a day off or a vacation or even retire with the knowledge that those who remain behind will continue to pursue the vision with the same vigor and standards as before. The mere boss, alas, can never stray far from his or her smartphone and must check emails and texts constantly. He wonders whether his people are working or shirking. She doubts that her employees are laboring as hard or as well as they do when she is peering over their shoulders. There is little doubt that when the cat is away, at least some of the mice will play. Such is the plight of the hapless soul who fills the role of boss while never achieving (or even aspiring to achieve) the status of leader.

The title of my keynote presentation (or half-day workshop), How to Become a Born Leader, evokes an obvious question: “How can you become something as an adult that you had to be born as decades ago?” But the title is a wordplay, intended to highlight my belief that there really is no such thing as a born leader. On the contrary, “born leader” is the descriptor that will be assigned to you by uninformed people after you have spent years internalizing all of the qualities of a true leader. No one is born with them; they are carefully honed and developed in the crucible of daily experience. They are developed as you ascend the six stages of what I call “The Leadership Pyramid.” It should be noted that I do not envision my leadership pyramid as the classic flat-sided sort found on the Giza Plateau in Egypt. Rather, it represents the type called a Ziggurat that ascends in defined levels, like huge stair-steps, similar to many of those found in Mexico.

Many climb a level or two and remain there forever, content to dwell on their low plateau. They enjoy the few benefits of mid-level management but have no aspirations to put in the time and effort to ascend higher. Or, perhaps they are unaware that almost any individual properly trained and motivated can climb to a loftier plateau, enriching the lives of many others even as they, themselves, are edified. Only a few will ascend to the pinnacle of the pyramid, embodying all of the qualities of a great leader. Once you reach that level, others will stand in awe from below and exclaim, “That’s a born leader if ever there was one!” And they will be wrong. There’s no such thing as a born leader. There are those who dared to climb, and those who either chose not to pay the price of the ascent or who never realized that they had the potential for greatness.

Billy Riggs is a funny leadership speaker and a motivational magician. You can purchase his book, How to Become a Born Leader here.Funny leadership speaker

William Riggs

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