Likable Leaders versus Popular Leaders

By | January 28, 2019

[January 28, 2019]  It was a great personal shock to me when my family moved from a small, sleepy Louisiana town to a large, vibrant Texas city.  It was in that first year of High School that I first came across students and teachers who were likable (but not popular) and those who were popular (but not very likable).  Only later in my military career did I realize that it was likable leaders who succeeded most; not the most popular.

On some occasions, I’ve published articles on how leadership is not a popularity contest and that the allure for popularity can be risky for leaders.  Unfortunately, the distinction between likeability and popularity is often unclear to the novice leader.  I see this in the young boys who are in Boy Scout Troop’s leadership positions.  Setting the record straight is needed.

Psychologists have been studying this distinction for a little over a decade and have made some worthwhile arguments to explain these phenomena.  Psychologists Sandstrom and Cillessen, in a 2006 study (link here) wrote that “likable children” are well adjusted and exhibit low-risk behaviors over time.  In contrast, “popular children” have a less clear social adjustment.  They are viewed as socially adept but also as manipulative.

Their explanation is a powerful one for those of us who look to improve our leadership skills.  University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson tells us that the most important responsibility of parents is to develop their children into likable little tots (before the age of 4).  By teaching our kids to be likable, other children and adults will want to be around them, play games, read to them, and help them when the need arises.

Likeability is not the same as popularity.  There are those in the field of psychology that tells us that popularity contains attributes of pro-social behavior (e.g., likeability) but also of anti-social behavior (e.g., controlling, manipulativeness).  It should be no surprise to anyone who survived High School that there were always a few extremely popular boys and girls, many which were extremely unlikeable.

There is a lesson for leaders.  First, recognize that being popular will not assure success.  How people see you as a popular leader can be tainted by the anti-social behaviors found in popular people.  Second, those likable leaders will find their path to leadership as an easier one and will succeed more often.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Likable Leaders versus Popular Leaders

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      This is why I keep coming back. My wife also reads this blog. Good discussions with her.

  1. Kenny Foster

    Recently Gen Satterfield reviewed a book by Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I recommend the book. In it, Prof Peterson lays out an excellent argument about the responsibility of parents (and extended to senior leaders) that their job is to make their children more ‘likable’ and thus a lesson for leaders. Likability is a good quality because you must learn to get along with others. This does not align well, necessarily, with ‘popularity.’ Just my thoughts.

  2. Len Jakosky

    Hmmmm. Very interesting distinction. This explains why leaders who look for popularity are sometimes really worthless leaders and will sacrifice good but hard decisions with bad but easy decisions.

  3. lydia truman

    Hi everyone, I’m a long-time reader of General Satterfield’s blog and really enjoy reading the comments everyone here writes. Your perspectives are truly helpful to me.

    1. Eric Coda

      Lydia, I think I speak for everyone here that we are always looking for different perspectives and explanations. Any thing you can provide will certainly be helpful. Thanks for being a fan of this leadership blog.

  4. Darryl Sitterly

    I’m not so sure I agree with the premise of Gen. Satterfield’s post today but the professional article and he do make good points. I think these ideas are too intertwined to make such a distinction and thus explains the confusion. Just my thoughts.

    1. Max Foster

      I see where you are coming from Darryl but I believe that if you re-read these articles you will see that the distinction is an important one and that they both explain why you (or we) have such a hard time making a distinction between them. Also why it is crucial for leaders to get their skill sets right.

  5. Lynn Pitts

    Here is another key point made by these psychologists. “Children who are nomiated as sociometrically popular are viewed as exhibiting high levels of prosocial characteristics such as cooperation, sociability, kindness, and leadership.” LEADERSHIP is my point. Leaders, do please pay attention to this.

  6. Martin Shiell

    I read the study at Gen. Satterfield’s link and it was informative. Just a note. This is an example of psychologists and sociologists finally catching up to what we’ve all known for a long time. If you went to High School EVER, you know this.

  7. Janna Faulkner

    Key quote from the study. “Sociologists, teachers, and children themselves have long argued that not all popular children are paragons of sweetness and light, and the popular media has been vividly portraying the socially manipulative and coercive aspects of popularity for years (e.g., Heathers, Freaks & Geeks and Mean Girls).”

    1. Georgie M.

      I think we already knew this somehow but never were able to verbalize it properly. I wasn’t popular in school but was well liked by most. It wasn’t because I was a star in sports or because I was a super smart girl but because I could get along with everyone.

    2. Nick Lighthouse

      Yes, this is one of the key points. The lesson for leaders willing to listen is important.

  8. Army Captain

    Nice way to distinguish and something I never really gave much thought to.

    1. Greg Heyman

      Same here. Never gave it much thought but now that I’ve read about it, I makes perfect sense.


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