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Is It Important To Be Liked As A Leader?

In a word: Yes. And you have to be much more than Liked. Let me illustrate with a couple true stories.

Meet CEO #1. Very smart, deep thinker, focused on quality products and respected in his field. An extreme introvert to the point of making everyone around him uncomfortable and unsure about where he stood on most issues. Slow to make decisions…if at all. The general consensus from the staff was that it was maddening to work with and for him. Not because he was an asshole; in fact he was quite a gentleman. It was impossible to like the man because it was impossible to connect with him. I don’t mean being chums. I mean having a conversation about ideas and solutions and critical issues. He struggled to articulate his thoughts or to relate to the other person’s ideas. Exchanges were painful and people learned to avoid him. Again, it’s not that there was anything at all offensive about him. He just was unreachable.

So how effective was he as a leader? Obviously not hardly at all. Everyone waited out his tenure hoping that the board would finally see fit to replace him. Unfortunately the business took a dive while he was in his role. Some of that was the sector but it was compounded by #1’s inability to connect and lead.

We often think it’s the egomaniacal or nasty or obnoxious leaders who are unlikeable. But unlikeable comes in lots of flavors not just the obvious ones.

Now meet CEO #2. Very smart, seasoned, broad skill set, deep knowledge of the business and respected in her field. Not particularly outgoing or flashy; more of a stable and objective presence. She was known for making tough calls about people and products as she elevated talent, quality and profitability. People found her to be a good listener and a thoughtful steward of the business. And, yes, she was well liked because people could relate to her. She was very down to earth, not particularly emotional or effusive and just plain spoken. People felt connected to her even if it was just through her monthly blog post.

Effective? Certainly. Her company was in deep trouble when she took on the role of CEO so she had to make many hard decisions. Because her focus was always on what is good for the business the staff was willing to follow her.

For #2 being likable was an asset for the business. To be clear, likable in this case does not mean glad handing and cheerleading. It means having the ego in check, having the proper focus and speaking in straightforward and objective terms.

One caveat: being liked does not necessarily lead to being respected. Being just liked but not respected won’t add up to effective leadership. Being respected but not liked will only get you part of the way there. It is the combination of smarts and approachability that wins the day.

So how can you work on your likability quotient?

  • Take an honest look at your interpersonal skills. Can you interact dynamically with others? Do you listen well? Do you get to the point in a timely manner? Is your style appealing? Do you find that people seek out your counsel? If you have received corrective feedback about your ability to relate to others pay attention to it. If you aren’t sure how well you do, ask for feedback. Know where you are starting from…truthfully.
  • Commit to a course of action. If you have always known that you rubbed people the wrong way stop fooling yourself that all your great results will lead to big promotions. Take the feedback seriously and work with your boss and others to identify specific behaviors that need improvement. Make this the moment that you actually follow through and do something new.
  • If your heart isn’t in it, don’t fake it. This is just one of those traits where you can’t fake it until you make it. Either you are someone who likes to relate to others or not. Either you are someone who can appreciate the ideas and directions of others or not. Either you are comfortable with those who are different from you or not. If you just are not a people person then you need to speak with your boss about managing this limitation.
  • Expand your notion of what it means to be likable. The conversation has become too extreme and binary. It is not asshole vs. susie sunshine. It is much more nuanced and rooted in being genuinely yourself. It’s not a popularity contest or a smarm-fest.

I like to take a generous outlook on us human beings. Most of us are decent and well meaning. That translates well into good leadership traits. Hopefully you can find your likability switch and flip it on.

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