You’re not here to make friends

The role of leader is not to seek to be popular, it is to serve in the best interest of stakeholders.  At different stages of your career, those stakeholders will change and evolve, but broadly that means your employees, customers, employers and society. It goes without saying that at times the interests of these different groups will present a tension. But frankly, that’s your job.

When I say this, the immediate reaction is to infer that I believe that the job of leaders is to be unpopular, that in some way I’m suggesting a nasty, brutal model of leadership. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Simply in order to lead well, you need to be prepared for people to not like you or your decisions. If you’re not, you will always shy away from a percentage of choices that could be helpful.

Backing yourself to make unpopular decisions and to lead through them to the other side is the very essence of leadership. In the most simple form, that’s why soldiers climbed out of the trenches, it is why explorers travelled the world, it is why star players are dropped before finals. The ability to make clear, decisive and difficult decisions.

The success of a leader isn’t how many people like them, it is how well they’re respected. I was reminiscing the other evening about a leader that I’d sadly had to remove from an organisation in the past. He was deeply liked and hugely popular, but from an impartial perspective massively ineffective. When he left the organisation there was a lot of emotion. A couple of years later team members voluntarily told me how angry they had been and how wrong they thought the decision was, but how much better things were now that he had gone.

Being a leader means sometimes we have to be unpopular, it means speaking out when it is inconvenient and acting when inaction would be easier. We must never conflate personal popularity with effectiveness or respect, we must be prepared to cause upset, not for the sake of it, but for the greater good.

We’re not here to make friends, we’re here to do the right thing.

Unpopular decisions can be right

Leadership isn’t a democratic art and frankly, nor should it be. There is a significant difference between listening, taking account of different opinions and decision by committee. Good leaders know when and how to differentiate between the two.

At the heart of this is my preferred definition of “to lead”, setting an example for others to follow. So much has been written about leadership and the art of listening that it is easy to forget that one of the core facets is acting first, being the one that others look to follow.

That’s why we in our organisational structures we often recognise leaders differently, whether that is in monetary reward or otherwise. The weight and responsibility of true leadership should fall heavy and with that comes the need to understand a multitude of data sets and views, but to be the one  to choose, to act, to decide…to lead.

In doing this we have to recognise that sometimes the choices and decisions we make will be unpopular. Our job is to embrace and not shy away from this fact, but to seek to explain and persuade those that we lead to follow us on this path. Our responsibility is to be the ones brave enough to step out of the line and plot a different path.

 

 

5 lessons on leadership

Your external network is everything – Being at the top of any structure can be a pretty lonely place – ask any CEO. You can’t go bitching and moaning to your boss, that’s not good karma, you can’t confide certain things to your team. So where do you go? That’s where having a good external network – people who are doing similar roles, facing similar challenges is critical.

You set the mood – From the moment you walk in the building, to the moment you leave you’re setting the tone. In your language, your behaviour, your pace and energy. You will receive back pretty much what you give out. If you’re having a bad day, keep it behind closed doors and do your best not to let it show. If it’s a bad week, it is probably time to take a holiday.

You have to trust your instincts – Every leader brings something of themselves into their team. Their personality, their experience, their style and their judgment. Most decisions, most questions don’t have a binary right or wrong answer – there are multiple right answers. Bringing your instinct as well as your intelligence defines your agenda and outcomes in a unique and personal way.

You can’t know everything – Or perhaps even half of things. One of the most important things to know is that the more you progress, the less (in percentage terms) of your range of responsibilities you will really know. Which means you need to have people around you who do. That’s their job and yours is something else. Second guessing them is never going to end successfully for either party.

You always have time to chat – Rushing around looking busy is not cool because everyone is busy. Life is not a busyness contest, it will win you no prizes. Be generous with your time, value the power of simple conversation, a quick hello or checking in on how someone is. If you’ve been through a day without genuinely inquiring after someone or stopping to pass the time, then you’re not doing a leadership role.