[December 29, 2016] A senior Flag officer in the U.S. Army with whom I worked for a number of years was in his last assignment and wanted to finish his final command without any big problems. But the predicament he created by trying to please everybody was that many soldiers thought of him as a weak leader and destroying his reputation as a “no-nonsense, get ‘er done” commander.
“I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” – Herbert Swope, U.S. Newspaper Editor and Journalist
Senior leaders in particular are drawn to the idea that they have the power to please everybody, to be popular, and to be loved by all. Tragically, experience tells us that it is not only impossible to achieve but that it may backfire and make things worse in the long run.
This Flag officer was in the unenviable position of being in command of a unit with simmering racial problems. By the end of his tenure (and retirement) the unit’s headquarters came under investigation by the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General because there were many race-based harassment claims. This became a stain on him during his retirement and it also resulted in career-terminating issues for many of his staff.
Being a good leader means making the right decisions at the right time for the organization. That will mean some people will be unhappy; whether due their own gloomy personality or because of a leader decision. Regardless, any attempt to make everyone happy (an actual attempt to make someone like you) does not work.
Despite having some short-term positive impacts, a leader doing this will find that by focusing on pleasing others at every turn, there will be a loss of direction and mission disruption. As such we can expect that such gains will only be temporary and the ultimate result will be disappointment. Most people know good leadership when they see it and can spot a phony. Real leaders never try to please everybody because they know the end result will not be good.
To this day, the Flag officer deeply regrets the many problems he created for his military unit but more so he is saddened that so many of his staffs’ careers were cut short unnecessarily and that many others were unjustly harmed in the affair. He told me, when I spoke with him last about his thoughts on leadership, that the change in his own leader philosophy (to please everybody) at the end was a preventable and costly mistake.
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