Popularity in leadership is a contradiction. We admire leaders who refuse to court popularity, who make difficult decisions and do what is right. We mock politicians who seem too keen to be liked. At the same time, in free societies, people lead by consent and, without a certain level of confidence and respect, cannot do their jobs. Popularity, admiration and respect are not quite the same things, but there is some overlap.
Some leaders will tell you they don’t care about popularity or even appear to relish a hard and ruthless image but, while it is certainly true that some people need approval less than others, no one is truly immune to criticism and disrespect. Some are good at hiding it, but it extracts a toll all the same. I don’t think we help new or aspiring leaders by ignoring the contradictions or claiming you can thrive without approval.
Those who seek and successfully achieve senior leadership are frequently well attuned to the motives and perceptions of their colleagues. It’s partly how they get to those positions. Leaders are often interested in other people and they are frequently exposed to the views of other people, whether they are interested or not. As a leader, you swim in a sea of implicit feedback. And yet we expect leaders to put those feelings to one side. This is unnatural. At the very least, being surrounded by animosity is swiftly draining. And being bathed in adulation is likely corrupting.
So popularity, its pursuit and its pitfalls, cannot easily be dismissed. But there is an easy path and a hard path. Like much of human endeavour, the easy path leads you into trouble. On the easy path to popularity each individual moment feels good, but the sum total leads ironically to intense unpopularity. By contrast, on the hard path there are moments of real discomfort but the destination is something profound: respect, loyalty, trust and commitment. The transient popularity of the easy path is tinged with overfamiliarity and disrespect: as a leader you are convenient and inconsequential. On the hard path, there can be a distance between leader and team, even a tension from time to time. The leader is a presence and is inconvenient in the sense that they push people out of their comfort zones towards excellence.
Teams also have an easy and hard path of their own. You can seek a leader who makes your work life easy and disappointing, or one who makes your work life demanding and inspirational. Most teams know this instinctively and rapidly tire of leaders who take them down the easy path. That is why the popularity it brings is only transient.
Perhaps we are unpicking different shades within the idea of ‘popularity’. I have used several words as if they were interchangeable. They may not be. The dictionary tells me it is the state of being liked, admired or supported by many people. Straight off we see that this is a collective impression – you may have individual relationships that are distinct from what the group as a whole think of you. Secondly, ‘like’, ‘admire’ and ‘support’ are all entirely independent concepts. You can admire someone you don’t really like. You can admire an effective opponent. And you can support someone you don’t like if their aims are close to yours. You can even like someone you don’t admire, in a somewhat pitying sense.
What a leader really needs is support. Being liked at a collective level is not especially valuable, and almost impossible without a degree of compromise and blandness. Support can be purely tactical, without respect or admiration: I neither respect nor admire you but offering my support will get me what I want: this year’s bonus, a promotion or simply keeping my job.
I would argue, though, that long term a level of respect or admiration is helpful. There will be times when a leader needs support even when it goes against the short term interests of their followers, when they ask for their faith in an untested or risky proposition. Basic tactical alliance won’t carry these occasions. The team will need to believe in the leader’s character: trust in their ethics, respect for their expertise, confidence in their abilities. This belief, call it respect or admiration, trust or loyalty, will have been built step by step on the hard path, which will have shown the leader to consistently put the needs of the team, organisation or mission above their own short term interest.
So let’s explore these paths. The easy path to follow is also the easiest to explain.
On the easy path, the leader consistently makes the choice which pleases the most people in the specific moment or which makes them look good at that time. Their day to day interactions therefore tend to be smooth, conflict free and generally amiable.
One dilemma for this sort of leader is that they face different audiences. Pleasing one group may alienate another. Such a leader also needs to manage upwards and become popular with their boss and peers. This may conflict with being popular with their team. This leads to another dysfunction of easy popularity: inconsistency. In fact, inconsistency is the chief mechanism whereby courting easy popularity leads to disrespect. It undermines trust and fairness. The point of the old cliche that ‘you can’t please everybody’ is that trying to do so ends up pleasing nobody. Even people who benefit from the pandering today fear that they will be thrown under the bus tomorrow.
There are many tracks on the easy path, and each situation has its unique context, but I also see some common themes. When I come across a manager who cannot sustain the respect of their team, despite being a basically nice person, I usually see one or more of these traits. As I seem to have come up with seven, I can handily call these the seven deadly steps of management. Remember each of them avoids a short term difficulty at the expense of longer term problems, and by doing so courts short term popularity at the expense of long term respect, often by creating inconsistency and unfairness.
Step one: playing favourites
Playing favourites undermines both the favourite and the leader. It often starts from the best of motives: you empathise with someone’s unique needs and circumstances; you make allowance for them. You spot someone’s unique talent; you create opportunity for them. In theory, this is good: if you do it for everyone. The trouble is, you know the people close to you best. You understand the people you spend the most time with or who are most like you. Maybe you think you know your whole team well. That’s feasible with half a dozen or even thirty or forty. Try it with a five hundred or ten thousand. The horrible paradox of leadership is that some of the highest human traits: of empathy, mercy, generosity and kindness can blend with our natural and inescapable biases to produce favouritism and unfairness.
Try to escape your usual circles and build your understanding of a more diverse range of people. Try to create more chances for people to volunteer, opt in and apply for opportunities rather than wait to be selected or assigned. More importantly, as I have written elsewhere when reviewing Ben Horowitz’s concept of management debt, we should design policies and systems that have humanity and space built into them. That way you can follow them consistently without having to add humanity back in by making exceptions and offering clemency. If a policy doesn’t let you treat people with respect by default, it is not a good policy. If fair and humane rules are applied consistently, people are usually content even when it doesn’t personally go their way.
Step two: indecision
There are two types of indecision. Refusing to make a decision or repeatedly changing your decision. Somewhat surprisingly, it is better to be wrong as a leader than it is to be indecisive. Of course, there are moments for reflection and gathering evidence. It is okay to change your mind when the facts change. This is not a counsel of recklessness or obstinacy. But the inability to take a decision when the time has come, changing your mind without clear reason, or repeated chopping and changing really alienate teams in the long run.
The connection between indecision and the need for popularity occurs when leaders put off making a difficult decision because they fear the response, back down too easily in the face of initial opposition or listen too readily to the last person who spoke.
Making big decisions is tough. We rarely have sufficient facts to fully justify the choice; there is usually a constituency who is disadvantaged. We experience the downsides of the option we selected, not the option we rejected. And we should, from time to time, change our minds. I have no better advice to offer than to say: you simply have to decide. Learn to look inside and determine whether your hesitation is due to genuine lack of information (which can be rectified) or fear of making the decision. You will definitely be wrong sometimes, but even a refusal to act is a kind of act. The point of leadership is that you are in constant motion where you wish it or not. Gather information, debate, decide, monitor, adapt and learn. Don’t let decisiveness become recklessness or obstinacy.
Step three: stealing the credit
This is a huge issue. Never, never take the credit that belongs to your team. And never doubt that they will notice when you do. This is such a poisonous act that I would go so far as to suggest that you err if you have to on the side of refusing credit and giving it to others. Even better: seek out ways to showcase, highlight and praise the work of your team. When people praise your leadership, accept with gratitude (false modesty is odious) but pivot immediately to the work that your team have done.
If you are a good leader, any success you have will be your team’s success in any case. You will take quiet pride in having created the conditions for them to excel: choosing good people, setting clear goals, not being an obstacle.
Taking credit can be a problem with new, insecure or ambitious leaders. The link with the easy path to popularity is that they are trying to impress stakeholders outside their team. Newly appointed leaders often have trouble adjusting from being an individual contributor, where their satisfaction and reward come from their own excellence, to a leader where their satisfaction must come from the excellence of others.
Have confidence that, when a member of your team does well, it reflects well on your leadership. Everyone who counts knows that and they do not need reminding. Sit back. Even better, push the other person forward. I take real interest in managers who seem to have a team full of superstars. Remember also, that your team will remember every time you take their credit. It festers worse than almost any other trait other than outright bullying.
Step four: constant compromise
Almost every meaningful decision has pros and cons. There is often a group of people who will benefit and a group who will suffer from the decision made. One strategy for maintaining popularity is to avoid the decision or flip flop. Another strategy is try and have it all. Again, there are two common styles of compromise. One is to try and have it all: to do both A and B. Another is to take the middle path: to do a little bit of A and B. Thus for example, you may be considering two large projects. Each has a team rooting for it and if you choose one, the others will be bitterly disappointed. Easy: choose both. Or you may be deciding at a strategic level between competing on cost versus product excellence. Your sales and your engineering teams have very different views. Rather than disappoint one, why not take some actions related to reducing costs and some actions related to increasing quality.
Now, there are times when compromise is entirely sensible, particularly when you are leading a fragile coalition of independent interests. There are times when there is a third way that avoids the dichotomies you are presented with. Discerning the times when compromise is beneficial is part of the art of leadership. But be careful you are not fooling yourself. The costs of repeated compromises of the type exemplified earlier are obvious: if you do two big projects you might fail at both or run out of resource; if you try to be a little bit cheap and little bit excellent, you will probably be neither.
Strategy has been described as the art of sacrifice: it is what you don’t do, so you can put your full weight behind the point of maximum leverage. To stand for something, you often have to accept its costs and downsides with good grace, otherwise you risk obfuscation and mediocrity. The grass often seems greener, but you will have trouble keeping two lawns looking their best. By seeking to avoid disappointing anyone, you create a weak or distracted organisation
Step five: insincerity
Leaders who court easy popularity tell people what they want to hear. They avoid the challenging feedback, the difficult truths and the hard facts. They are always ready with praise and reassurance. The trouble is, it is no real kindness to prevent someone from addressing a weakness or to withhold facts that would enable them to make a better decision. It also devalues praise that is deserved: people can’t tell whether it is a genuine assessment or another way of avoiding a difficult conversation. There is such a thing as praise inflation.
Let’s be clear: you should give praise where it is due. You should provide hope where it is needed and reflect back to your team reasons to be proud. And flattery alone rarely inspires hatred, just disappointment. When flattery becomes truly toxic is where it is two faced: when you praise someone to their face and criticise them behind their back. Every time you gossip critically about a colleague at work, the person you are speaking to is left wondering what you say about them in other conversations.
There are few iron rules in management, but a good contender is: never say something about someone that you haven’t said to someone. (Even for that I can think of some exceptions around safeguarding and whistleblowing, but you get my drift.) This happens too often in appraisal; a team member will have a comfortable conversation with their manager and then read something critical in the notes which was never actually said in so many words face to face.
Step six: missing in action
There are moments of tension and conflict in any team or organisation, however successful: complaints, mistakes, restructurings, arguments, disasters, crises and tragedies. Some leaders always seem to be present in these moments: absorbing the criticism, sharing the pain, fronting the decisions, making choices. Some leaders always seem to be missing. Don’t be that leader. There is a simple rule to follow: if you really don’t want to be there, you probably should be there.
By being present when things are tough, you will definitely take some short term flak, you will be associated with tough decisions and their consequences. You will be uncomfortable. You will also be respected and trusted.
Step seven: riding to the rescue
Rescuing people is a swift and certain route to immediate popularity. There are some leaders who live to save the day. You no sooner mention a possible challenge and they drop everything and run to sort it out. What exactly is the problem with this – it sounds kind of supportive? Two problems: one, is that it disempowers people from solving their own problems and stunts their development. They might need some advice and scaffolding, a few pointed questions and suggestions, but they don’t really benefit from having it done for them.
The second problem is more serious: what is the leader not doing when they are busy doing their team’s work for them? It often means that the ‘important but not urgent’ tasks of strategy, planning, relationship building, thinking and reflection are being neglected. The trouble is, these tasks can often be strangely unsatisfying. They are rarely fully completed, you can’t easily see progress, they are occasionally lonely and no one really notices you doing them. How much more satisfying is the immediate gratification of rescuing people, fixing problems and solving crises? You can easily spend a whole day in troubleshooting mood and go home feeling really good about yourself and with next year’s budget unfinished. You will hear a lot of leaders complaining that they can’t get anything done through constant firefighting. Be dubious of their complaints: they love feeling needed.
Once again, nuance is required. There are emergencies where your presence is needed – particularly the really unpleasant and dangerous stuff. As I said above, if you feel like you want to stay in your office, that probably exactly the time you need to leave and get stuck in. Don’t be an absentee leader. Just beware of sustained saviour mode. You won’t be popular when the organisation goes into deficit because you rushed the budget at the last minute.
The harder path
The harder path, then, consists in telling the truth, however difficult, but doing so without cruelty. It consists in avoiding self aggrandisement and self promotion, without diffidence; in trusting and valuing your team, without over-exposing them; in dealing consistently with people, without inhumanity.
It consists in doing the work you need to do, without being unapproachable or distant. In walking towards trouble, not away, but without disempowering others. In committing and sticking to the course, without obstinacy or recklessness.
These are fairly traditional homilies. The difficulty lies in doing them, not knowing them. Each of these can feel uncomfortable or unnatural in the moment, making them hard to sustain amidst the press of events.
Perhaps that very discomfort is your compass. What are you least looking forward to today? That may be your most important task. Leaders are human, perfection is neither expected not required. If you can just replace one easy step with a hard step each day, you will be building a bank of genuine goodwill.
A second tactic is to imagine that, rather than being singular and private, each choice is universal and public. What if this wasn’t a one off? What if you did this all the time and everyone knew what choice you had made? What decision would you make then? This isn’t a mere though experiment: compromise begets compromise and everybody find out about them eventually. Consider yourself under scrutiny.
A third tactic, of particular value to new leaders is to consciously reframe success for yourself. It is no longer about personal excellence or reputation. If you are looking good, something has gone wrong. You only succeed if a member of your team is demonstrating excellence (or growth towards excellence) and gaining reputation. Insecurity and jealousy are the main barriers to this generosity. It is worth admitting them to ourselves – they are universal traits – and bringing them into daylight reduces their power. Everyone has their moment in the spotlight and it is often swiftly followed by time in the shade. Neither praise not condemnation are entirely correlated with our actual worth. You may not get mentioned in dispatches all the time, but the success and confidence that others will feel under your leadership will exert its own quiet magnetism.
The steps on the hard path to the kind of popularity that comes from respect do not pay dividends immediately. They often feel worse at the time. This is a long term play. Steer by the goal not by the feedback.
Having devoted so much time to popularity it feels anti-climatic but necessary to conclude by saying popularity ain’t everything. Neither sort will protect you from the wrong strategy or from bad luck. It is not a substitute for serving a real need or a lucky charm. So, it turns out, it isn’t a popularity contest after all.