Boss, leader and the Dunning-Kruger effect

Vincent Chu
2 min readApr 2, 2021

I often see these boss vs leader illustrations in my LinkedIn feed. I’ve seen many people post them — some posters are individual contributors, and some are managers or senior leaders in the industry. People post these illustrations for a number of reasons — we have all encountered managers in either category and we can relate our experiences with them, but I think there’s more. There’s the Dunning-Kruger effect.

For those who are not familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect, this 5-minute Ted-ed video explains it succinctly. In short, it’s the psychological bias that causes most drivers to believe they’re above average drivers (not me), and 30% to 40% of the engineers to believe their abilities are in the top 5% (definitely me). Conversely individuals who are truly the best in their areas tend to also underestimate their own abilities, thinking everyone else can do the same and not realizing they’re somewhat unique.

How is the Dunning-Kruger effect related to the boss vs leader illustrations? I suspect when managers post or see the illustrations, the majority of them will associate themselves as “the leader” and not “the boss”. This includes, of course, myself.

The reality is, there are a lot more bad bosses than great leaders in the world. They may even be veterans in the industry, dictating and micromanaging every detail while thinking they’re providing great leadership. Leaders who do any self introspection will tell you that it’s very difficult to tell whether they’re perceived as leading or bossing, and this is not a matter of confidence but a recognition of this inherent psychological bias.

There are steps to take to combat biases — great leaders actively seek out to collect qualitative and quantitative feedback.

  • They ask for feedback in their 1-on1 conversations;
  • They engage in discussions with their employees to solve problems together because they know they hired the best people, and they can’t possibly always come up with the best solutions by themselves;
  • They reflect objectively and use data to help them figure out whether they’re making the right decisions or imposing the wrong directions to their teams.

What do you think? Feel free to leave comments to suggest what other steps to take.

Originally published at

Vincent Chu

I'm an engineering leader in a SAS company with more than 15 years of software industry experience.