Most of us are pretty quick to use the words boss and leader interchangeably. But they are not the same, and at the end of the day, what most people want is the leader. With that in mind, it's easy to distinguish between bosses and leaders by behaviors. Bosses give orders and talk first, for example, while leaders give advice and listen. But something deep down at the core fuels those behavioral differences in the first place.

The view of a boss.

When you look at some of the common things bosses do, such as using a lot of "I" language, taking credit and criticizing, you'll see that most of the behaviors undermine others, leaving the boss looking like the intelligent or skillful one. And generally speaking, most people want to look intelligent or skillful so they can get a cushy place high up on the social food chain. That high social standing, the subconscious reasoning goes, means protection not just against isolation, but also against other grossness like financial struggles.

In essence, bosses aren't convinced they're locked in enough to be safe. Day after day, they assert authority to convince themselves they have it. Day after day, they try to build and maintain their ego by reminding you how much you don't know, can't do, or aren't qualified for. It's one individual defending themselves.

The view of a leader.

Leaders commonly use inclusive pronouns like "we," and they're happy to praise and show others how to move forward. Rather than undermine, they build you up. That's because they don't feel threatened. They're confident enough in where they are that they feel stable, and they don't worry that helping others somehow will put their own standing at risk. In fact, they want to help, because they believe that, if they somehow get into trouble, those they've built up will come to aid. Through equality, everyone can defend everyone else, and power is in the group.

Transforming yourself from boss to leader.

In sum, what separates leaders from bosses is how they view power/status and the role of the individual versus the group. Now, I can't pinpoint why some people worry about their "place" more than others, or why those people think they have to protect themselves. It's probably a combination of nature and nurture. Personality likely shapes the experiences we have and the perception those experiences subsequently create for us. But personality is not totally stable. It can be influenced by behavior and experience. So while leadership might come more easily to some individuals than others, it's also something we absolutely can learn to be better at.

To grow as a leader, what seems most essential is your network. It's critical to surround yourself with people who can encourage you, who can help you understand that you are appreciated and capable, despite whatever flaws you have. You need people who can push you to tackle new experiences that will stretch you and build your confidence, who can teach you to listen, observe, and share. You need people who can prove to you that there is kindness and cooperation in the world, and that not every corner has someone waiting to hurt you around it.

But leadership is also a choice. All the mentors in the world mean nothing if you question and push back against everything they say, if you tell yourself that somehow they're not being real with you. You have to consciously decide to accept that you have biases and fears just like everyone else, and take what others say to you with an open but logical mind. This is often more difficult than it sounds, because sometimes we can't even pinpoint exactly what the source(s) of our biases and fears are. And if that's the case for you, it's OK. You simply have to tell yourself, "I might not know why, but I know that's not how I want to be, and I am capable of learning a new truth and changing how I behave."

Let's reiterate that one more time, so it sinks in.

You might not know why you're scared of specific things or why you hold certain beliefs. But you know now, in this moment, that it's not how you want to be. You are capable of learning a new truth. You can change how you behave.

Every one of us can be a leader. So look in the mirror and have faith. Take action. You are only just getting started.

Published on: Aug 13, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.