[January 27, 2017] Many of us measure leadership by the level of popularity of the person. You hear this often about politicians; that those most popular are the greatest (they do need it to be elected). In part that explains the continuous measure of the popularity of politicians, Hollywood actors, and fashion models. In reality, however, popularity is no measure of leadership.
While this may be a fundamental truth when discussing leadership, there exists the allure for popularity and thus leaders must beware of the pitfalls. There seems to be a psychological condition – perhaps I should say “obsession” – that affects us all; we desire to be loved by everyone, even our enemies. Television is just one medium that pushes this narrative and does so in a number of sitcoms like either Reba or Divorce (see synopsis, link here and here).
“Popularity should be no scale for the election of politicians. If it would depend on popularity, Donald Duck and The Muppets would take seats in senate.” – Orson Welles, American actor, director, writer, and producer
A recent poll out by Gallup gives us an updated “approval rating” for all U.S. presidents since World War II starting with Eisenhower.1 The results are only a little surprising yet do not align with the common idea on the greatness of presidents. For example, we all believe that Harry S Truman was a great president, yet he is the least popular of all post-WWII presidents. Many consider Barak Obama as a great president and yet he is rated 9th out of 12, just below G.W. Bush and Nixon.
Character is the measure of leadership and everything goes back to character. American newspaper editor Horace Greeley once said that “… popularity [is] an accident … only one thing endures and that is character.” His point was that those things we may consider important, like fame, popularity, and riches are temporary but it is the spirit of goodness (of character) that is permanent and what we will be known for.
Leaders know that they are not in their position to be liked or disliked, popular or detested, or fashionable or dull. They are there to be the best they can be, the best leader they can be, and the best for all who are part of their organization. That is why the best leaders focus on the important and ignore transient popularity.
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