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.