Leaders: You Do Not Have To Be Liked To Be Respected

By Alexandra Tselios, Business Consultant

At university, I remember the amount of theory we had to learn about leadership was intense, but people generally settled into two key areas—you were either an autocratic or a paternalistic leader. We even did quizzes that would determine where on the spectrum we sat and the likelihood of our success.

But in the real world, learning how to truly be a leader  is very different from actually being one, and in my experience the people around you and the circumstances you face really do define who we are as so-called ‘leaders’ in the end. I am not going to re-invent the wheel on leadership theory, but one thing I know is that the goal of leadership should not be to always be liked.

Sure, you don’t want to be a leader who is hated by all, but you also don’t need to go to sleep at night concerned if someone in your office does not like you personally. It actually, at times, does not matter. What does matter is that you are seeing your leadership style impact your environment in such a way that your team is fulfilled and the results are tangible.

I would argue that a leader is less likely to be effective if they are affected by their own likability. Human beings are dichotomous creatures; one person’s strong personality type that is endearing is another person’s nightmare. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, and while learning as much as one can about the theory can be valuable, I find it hard to accept that someone can truly replicate another person.

There will be things we do that will be flawed and things that we do that will be effective. You can read all the theory you like but if no one wants to follow you, all the leadership books and articles about being likable in the world are not going to help.

When leading a company, likability shouldn’t be a goal, but having people engaged and customers coming back should be. There are many paths to achieving this and becoming inauthentic in the hopes of being liked is simply not one of them.

As a leader, you will at times need to make decisions you don’t want to make. You may have to cut loose someone who is wasting your organisation’s resources, or you may reject a deal because it does not fit in with the company’s core values.

These things are not easy to do for some, and it certainly won’t make you the most popular person at the office morning tea that day, but true leaders know that it’s a necessary action at times, and they are capable of moving forward with the right thing for the company.

I read recently an article on the habits of exceptionally likeable people and I realized how misleading the title was. You see, it should have been called habits of persuasive people, or habits of people who have disciplined emotions. But likable?  It’s a mistake to make this a key part of your governance strategy.

By focusing on being the most-liked person in the room you are at risk of making decisions that feel good in the moment, or get you immediate praise, rather than what is right. Focusing on being authentic, visionary and effective means that some people will intuitively like you and follow your strategies, but there will be some people who won’t resonate with you as a person and that is fine.

Does it really matter to you that every single person remembers to send you a Christmas card? Or is it more important that people believe that you will make the right decisions, not just for the company, but for them as individuals?

It has never fazed me to let someone go in a company, not because I am callous or uncaring but simply because I perhaps identified they were the wrong fit. They may be better suited in a different environment, they may feel apathetic or may just not agree with the direction your company is headed, and sometimes that means they can’t stay. Ultimately, I would rather impact someone’s life and add value to it—and I can’t do that if I am solely concerned with ensuring everything I say and do is to their liking.

Some of the people who have taught me the most and encouraged me in my career have been people I respected. I like the lady who sells me my Ristrettos down the road; she is lovely, chirpy and happy-go-lucky! Am I going to follow her lead and put my career on the line because of that? Not at all—I would rather discern she is worth following by looking at other areas.

I would watch how she makes decisions and why, the way she treats others and if her career is headed in a way that I would like to emulate or add to in some capacity. The fact that she is also likable is irrelevant. I would rather people ‘like’ working alongside me rather than just being ‘liked’ for the sake of it.  They are the people I can build and create with and add value to. If your focus as a leader is just to be liked rather than add value; it is likely to be a path that fails both yourself and those in your team.


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