The Critical Difference Between Hiring a Boss and Hiring a Leader

There are countless nuances involved in the hiring process. That’s why it can appear to be such a complicated and complex endeavor. It sounds easy to hire great candidates who become top employees, but it’s much more difficult to actually do it.

The key to hiring well is to hire consistently well, not just hire well every once in a while. A mis-hire is so costly that organizations literally can not afford to make that mistake once, much less on a regular basis. However, many organizations make that mistake much more frequently than once.

That’s why companies must become experts in the art of hiring, and if they can’t do so, then they must engage the services of those who are experts. It takes nothing less than expert to master not just the hiring process and everything it includes, but also the small details and nuances that are often overlooked and underappreciated.

Raising the stakes of a mis-hire

One of those nuances involves hiring a boss versus hiring a leader. They are most definitely not one and the same. If you hire somebody as a boss, that does not mean they’re also a leader. There is a critical difference between the two. (Actually, there’s more than just one difference.)

The problem that organizations encounter is when they hire somebody to be a boss and/or manager with the expectation that they’re also a leader. When that person proves that they are indeed NOT a leader, then the hiring manager and other officials within that organization are left to wonder what went wrong. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. If they’re lucky, it’s just a “simple” mis-hire. If they’re not lucky, then it was a mistake that had far-reaching ramifications.

That’s because making a mistake when hiring higher-level executives is more costly than making a mistake when hiring lower-level professionals. The stakes are higher. The more important the hire, the less margin for error there is. The unfortunate consequences of having somebody in a management role who is not a leader are numerous:

  • Loss in productivity
  • Lack of vision
  • Dissatisfied employees
  • Division within the department

So the obvious question at this point is this: How can you tell the difference between the two? Or perhaps an even more pressing question would be this: How can you hire a boss or manager who is also a leader?

3 levels of hiring consideration

There are three different levels at which candidates should be assessed during such a hiring situation. Those levels are the candidate’s skill set, the candidate’s employment history, and the intuition of the officials who are ultimately making the decision.

#1—The candidate’s skill set

A leader is more than just a person in a position of influence and power within an organization. Bosses delegate tasks and tell people what to do. Leaders do far more than that. Below is a sampling of the best characteristics of leaders:

  • They inspire people to perform at high levels.
  • They empower people by giving them what they need to succeed.
  • They view obstacles and challenges as opportunities.
  • They constantly strive to innovate and shed the shackles of the status quo.
  • They draw people to themselves; people rally around them.

That final characteristic is especially important. That’s because true leaders help to attract other top talent and also retain the best employees that a company already possesses. That alone make them “worth their weight in gold.”

#2—The candidate’s employment history

The biggest predictor of future success is past success. If the candidate possesses some (or all) of the characteristics listed above, then those characteristics should be evident in their employment history. There should be tangible evidence of their achievements and accomplishments as a leader.

  • What has the candidate done for previous employers?
  • What did they accomplish in their role as a boss and/or manager?
  • Did they show leadership skills?
  • If so, can those skills be quantified by the results they achieved?
  • Do the person’s references speak in glowing terms of their abilities as a leader?

If a person does not have some sort of track record of being a leader, then there’s less of a chance that they will be one within your organization.

#3—Intuition of the officials who are ultimately making the hiring decision

Ideally, those individuals who are charged with the hiring of leaders are already leaders themselves within the organization. It makes sense that it takes leaders in order to hire leaders.

All throughout the interviewing and hiring process, company officials should be assessing the candidate on all levels. That includes assessing their leadership ability and potential. If a person is attempting to “fake” being a leader, a true leader should be able to see that and disqualify the candidate. They should also be able to project whether or not the person would excel within the company and how they would interact with the other members of their team.

And of course, the cultural fit must also be considered. Even if the candidate has all of the skills and experience and the company’s hiring authorities correctly identify them as a true leader, the candidate should also be a cultural fit. Their leadership style and philosophy must fit within the parameters of the organization’s mission statement and company brand.

The role of a search firm

Like anything else, hiring leaders as opposed to hiring bosses takes practice. In other words, the more you hire true leaders, the better you will become at hiring them in the future. This is part of the value that an executive search firm brings to organizations. A successful search firm within your industry has the experience and expertise necessary to consistently identify, recruit, and present leaders for high-level positions.

An executive search firm will qualify and vet the candidate in accordance with the three criteria listed above. In addition, if they have extensive knowledge of your organization and how it operates, its search consultants will be in a better position to assess whether or not the person would be a good fit.

Do not leave your next high-level hire up to chance. If you need a true leader for the role, don’t just hire a boss. Hire somebody who can inspire, innovate, and rally other people around them. Hiring a boss instead of a leader is a mis-hire. Hiring a boss who is also a true leader could turn into the best hire you’ve ever made.

We help support careers in one of two ways: 1. By helping to find the right opportunity when the time is right, and 2. By helping to recruit top talent for the critical needs of organizations. If this is something you would like to explore further, please send an email to