Do you need to be liked to be an effective leader?
The answer to this question is not simple. I wish it were as easy as saying yes or no. It’s not. Although that would make for a very clear and concise blog, wouldn’t it?
The truth is, I have seen leaders who were incredibly effective and universally disliked.
I have seen incredibly well-liked people who were extremely ineffective leaders.
As you ponder your own career, my guess is you’ve seen something similar. It’s just not that simple.
What I can do is share my personal experiences with you. And hope that in so doing, I can offer a perspective you can use as you shape your own career strategy and mindset and plan. It’s entirely possible you won’t agree with me. I suppose some of it has to do with who each of us is as an individual, how we see the world, and others in it. Nevertheless, here we are, so let’s talk about it.
Do you need to be liked to be an effective leader?
My simple answer to this not so simple question is, “No, but it helps.”
Let’s start with what makes a great leader. Some things that come to my mind:
Can inspire and motivate a team.
Can develop and operationalize a strategy.
Are decisive and have integrity.
Can communicate clearly.
Can activate a group of people to work in unison towards a desired result.
Great leaders do these things well. But do they need to be liked to get it done?
The reality is, there are highly effective leaders who are not likeable. There are monsters and tyrants and bullies who are very successful, at least in their own definition of what success means. They direct teams (or entire companies) to achieve amazing results. They technically hit on all the points above. They do this through brute force, leverage and fear. It happens all the time and there is no sense in pretending it doesn’t.
I should say, these leaders – who are effective but not liked – seem to be rare. They’ve chosen, in my opinion, a harder path. Typically, they are very unique people in very unique scenarios. If a young leader came to me and asked what type of leader I thought they should strive to be, I certainly wouldn’t guide towards being a tyrant.
I have found, over the course of my career, it is much easier to be effective as a leader if you are liked. Note, I did not say “soft” – I said “liked”. If you build strong personal relationships with your team and your peers and your manager, the path to success is cleaner, with fewer obstacles. I imagine it also feels better on the inside. Being liked is not mandatory for a leader, but it’s easier.
But what do I mean exactly?
What does “being liked” mean in different contexts? For your peers? For your boss? For your team? Let me spend some time on each.
With your peers
Being liked by your peers is extremely important in my experience. Especially when we talk about peers from other departments in the company. Working with people, over whom you have no legitimate authority, requires diplomacy. It’s a constant negotiation to get things done. You need to influence these people. You can’t tell them what to do. They aren’t obligated to help you with anything. It helps if they like you.
When you don’t have positive relationships with your peers, they tend not to share information with you. They tend to avoid working with you. Sometimes they purposely oppose you just to take a stand. These are massive headwinds to your performance. By contrast, if your peers like you, they will share more information, earlier. They seek you out to work on projects. They search for reasons to support your projects and initiatives. These are all tailwinds to your performance. They make things easier.
My advice to leaders is to invest more time building positive relationships with your peers. Find ways to help them. Spend more time with them. Listen to them. It’s a much more pleasant way to operate, and it makes being successful a lot easier.
With your boss
There are people who say it’s not important to be liked by your boss. That you just need to deliver results. I have not found this to be the case in practice. In my experience, it’s extremely important to have a positive and personal relationship with your boss. You want your boss to see you as a partner. As someone they can trust. You want your boss to enjoy spending time with you.
Being liked by your boss provides a natural boost when things are going well i.e. you can be presented with more opportunities for success. It also provides some natural protection when things are not going well i.e. you’re more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt or assessed through a positive lens.
You often hear gossip around the office about a boss playing favorites. He’s never hard on this person. She loves everything that person does. This person always gets her budget requests accepted. My advice is to stop complaining about it and start building a more positive relationship with your boss. If, indeed, your boss plays favorites – try to become a favorite. You can only play the best you can with the cards you’re dealt.
By contrast, if you’re not liked by your boss, you will face a natural pullback on everything you do. It may be ok for a while, when you’re performing well. But the moment you slip up, or stumble or fail, that pull will grow exponentially.
My advice to leaders is to invest time and energy into building a positive personal relationship with your boss. You don’t need to be “friends”, but you do need to be in a good place.
With your team
This one is a bit trickier. That’s why I saved it for last. I’ve just told you it’s important to build a positive and personal relationship with your boss. Now I’m going to advise you not to be “friends” with your team members. On the surface these pieces of advice seem to be at odds with each other. And that has everything to do with my use of the term “friends”. There’s a lot of nuance in here and I’ll do my best to be clear.
Some managers fail because they have a deep seeded need to be “friends” with their employees. Some managers get into trouble because they don’t know the difference between being liked and respected, and being “friends”.
When you are friends with someone and they ask you for feedback, “do you like this?” Your priority is to make them feel good. Even when you need to give a friend some tough love, you still do it in the kindest way possible. Your top priority is for them to be happy – they’re your friend. This can’t be your mindset as a manager. Yes, you care about your employees. Yes, you want them to be great. But you can’t sugar coat feedback. You can’t package it. You need to be brutally honest. And you can’t do that if you’re trying to be “friends” with your team members. You wouldn’t fire your friend.
In my experience, to be an effective manager, your team members need to know that you care about their wellbeing, that you want them to be successful. This is mandatory to build a high-performance team. BUT … and this is a big BUT … you must be completely honest with them to accomplish this. And this is where we depart from the friend zone.
When it comes to the relationship a manager has with her team members, my advice is to focus more on being honest, than on being friends. When your team members see your honesty comes from a positive place, they will like you … just maybe not in the same way they like their friends.
The question of whether or not we need to be liked to be effective leaders is more complex than it appears on the surface. There are just too many examples of unlikeable leaders who are successful (at least in a business context). In my experience, it is not mandatory, but it certainly helps. Being liked provides a natural tailwind to everything you do, and it protects you when things don’t go well. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section.