[October 4, 2013]
“Popularity is not leadership.”
– Richard Marcinko, US Navy Seal, Author
The saying that leaders need to be popular to get things done is a myth. However, there is some confusion about this in the workplace and among leaders and lay people alike.
Certainly, leaders do not want people to hate them because that will hinder getting the mission accomplished. In addition, their boss (and board members), customers, peers, and employees would have a problem working with them.
The confusion rests in the paradox that leaders and popular people have similar attributes. Both have followers – those that admire them, listen to them, copy their behavior, and like to be around them.
The leader has something more, something that the popular person only possesses at the most superficial level. Leaders will have developed trust and confidence through a history of making the right decisions, standing for a set of core values, and have the ability to paint a picture (or vision) of the future.
“Popular” leaders, unconsciously or not, may give preferential treatment to select employees, fail to discipline poor performers, and change strategic direction to please others. We all need to be careful here. Ultimately, putting popularity above duty and responsibility, hurts employee morale, motivation, trust, devastates esprit de corps, and produces a negative work culture.
“Avoid popularity if you would have peace.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States
Is there a difference at the senior leader level? Do senior leaders have a more complex environment?
President Lincoln said this because he recognized that senior leaders (politicians, captains of industry, military general officers) work with and interact with people who exercise considerable power, hold greater experience, have much larger egos, and are used to getting their way.
So, yes, there is a difference at the senior leader level and their environment is far more complex. By attempting to please everyone and being popular, a senior leader will inevitably get sideways with other senior leaders.
The reasons for this are multifaceted. Relationships between very senior leaders can be social but more often than not, symbolize the approval of powerful constituencies.