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Commentary: Leaders Vs. Bosses


Commentator William Holston recently turned 59 years old. During that time, he’s married, raised children and practiced law. Now, as head of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, Holston wants to focus on another goal: becoming a great leader.

There is a huge difference between being a leader and being a boss. A graphic on my wall illustrates this well. There are two images.  In the one labeled “boss,” a person sits in an elevated platform pointing directions while others pull forward. In the other image, labeled “leader,” a person points forward, but he joins the others in pulling the rope.

Good leaders never ask an employee to do a task they’re not willing to do themselves. Even better is the leader who pitches in and does any task in the organization, modeling that everyone’s efforts are equally important. Last summer our agency saw a huge increase in children seeking refuge from the violence of Central America. Although not my job really, I needed to pitch in and represent children in court. Nelson Mandela once wrote said, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory, when nice things occur. You take the front when there is danger.’

Mark Miller, who is Vice President for Leadership Development for Chick-fil-A, describes the fundamental aspects of great leadership as: Hunger For Wisdom, Expect the Best, Accept Responsibility, Respond with Courage and Think Others First. Think about what institutions would look like if bosses, executive directors, and school administrators took that advice.

Everyone can exercise real leadership, whatever their place in the organization chart. Our youngest employees inspired all of us to do better last year as they worked harder and longer to meet the crushing needs of children. And their fresh ideas helped us to do better work. Amy Gallo writes in the Harvard Business Review that, “Don’t wait for that fancy title or corner office. You can begin to act think and communicate like a leader long before that promotion.”

I know I’m not a great leader yet. I make lots of mistakes. I once made a hire without really seeking input from all of my staff where the greatest need was. This later required us to do some frantic rearranging of staff.

Each morning I begin with a simple prayer, one that presents a huge daily challenge. Help me lead with Integrity, Skill, Wisdom, Courage and Humility. Jesus once said that in order to be great, one must be a servant. I’m just beginning to understand how true that is.

William Holston is Executive Director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. KERA airs commentaries to reflect multiple perspectives and voices.  We welcome your feedback at