[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.