Likeability and Leadership

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It was a leadership team meeting that I attended in 2014. The leader with whom I used to work stated, “Likeability is an important pre-requisite to be an effective leader”. While I immediately agreed with the concept, it gave raise to multiple questions in my mind:

  • Does it mean condoning populism?
  • How can a leader take tough decisions in the interest of the organisation and still be likeable to all?
  • How can one be a leader who is likeable to all?
  • How does this go with giving critical development feedback to people?

This blog intents to explore answers to some of these questions and share my reflections on this topic. Here I explore some traits that may either contribute to a leader being likeable or are detrimental to it.

Visionary leaders who have a clearly articulated purpose will draw people to themselves. A powerful yet rare combination is a 1:1 say-do ratio to back up the narrative. Sometimes even visionary leaders with good intent are not able to maintain their say-do ratio due to lack of self awareness and good counsel.

Predictability is a key factor too. I know a few leaders who are tough task masters and still liked by their teams. My reading is that teams feel they can predict the responses of these leaders in any given situation. And as long as the result of being with the leader is excellent, they stay on. Success binds people together.

On the other hand, being mercurial is a big derailer no matter whether the intent of the leader is most noble or the results produced are excellent. Teams under such leaders will always be under stress and self doubt. This perception develops when they don’t take care to explain the reason for a changed opinion and/or are not inclusive. One of my mentors used to say; “there is nothing called over communication in leadership”. Sometimes if a decision can’t be explained due to confidentiality, just saying so goes a long way.

Emotional stability is important as well. If a leader has tendencies to suddenly explode, express anger or frustration either by words or body language, chances are that teams perceive this as mercuriality. Higher the position of such leaders in the organisation, greater the impact of such behaviour on the team.

Some leaders also have confessed to me that they keep a cloud of mystery around them and like to keep their people guessing. I think this stems from fear of exploitation. My response to this belief in a leader is in another blog “The Art of Trust Investment”.

Then there is the “friendly leader”. Such leaders would often take the team out for a drink and party often with them. While this is excellent in every way, some leaders end up doing only that. They take responses of people during these parties as proof of team liking them. And they feel ‘betrayed’ when people leave them or criticise them for not adding value professionally!

There is another kind of populist leader. The one that keeps giving false promises and hope to retain people long enough to produce short term results. They are generally timid, insecure or over ambitious. I know of leaders who promised either high pay increase or promise of promotions which are unlikely to happen as per organisation guidelines to either pacify or gain popularity among the team. They leave a disengaged team for the leaders who follow.

Great leaders exhibit genuine interest in people. It’s not good enough to have right intent, leader should also be sensitive enough to realise when their team mate needs them professionally, emotionally or personally and be there for them. This is easier said than done though. In reflection, while the intent has always been to support the team, I have at times missed such moments because of being too engrossed in work to sense it. Team members may not always express when they need you. You have to develop the sensitivity to pick up signals that they need you.

There are a wide variety of effective leadership styles. All these leadership styles attract people due to different value proposition that each style offer to the followers. As long as the value proposition is strong enough, and there is not just a promise of it but also delivery, people will follow. And if the leadership value proposition is aligned to the organisation’s goals, values and code of conduct, any decision leader takes would be understood and accepted by the people.

To summarise, a likeable & sustainable leadership value proposition in my view should have atleast following elements:

  • Clearly articulated purpose with 1:1 say-do ratio
  • Self Awareness
  • Predictability
  • Inclusiveness
  • Exhibition of genuine interest in people
  • Demonstration of trust in the team

Do you think there could be more? Please comment!

If you like it, do share with those who may be interested.


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