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3 Hard But Powerful Truths about Likeability and Leadership

So you probably want people to like you. Who doesn’t?

Often when people say they don’t care whether people like them, it’s because they used to care whether people like them, but they got burned and as a result have become a bit jaded, closed and maybe even cynical.

If we’re gut-honest with each other, most of us would rather be liked rather than not liked.

The rise of social media makes this tension even more present daily. Did anyone ever post a picture or update and not want it to be liked or shared? Social media is turning already insecure leaders into like-aholics.

Which poses a challenge for all of us who lead.

Do we lead? Or should we be likeable?

Can you lead and be likeable?

And what happens if you choose one over the other?

This is a tension that ruins a lot of leadership potential. But it can be managed. Here’s how.

likeability in leaders

3 Hard But Powerful Truths About Likeability and Leadership

The tension between likeability and leadership is much older than social media. Every leader in every generation has had to struggle with it at some level.

While you may never resolve the tension, understanding it and keeping it in front of you will help you navigate it better.

Here are 3 hard but powerful truths about the tension.

1. If you focus on being liked, you won’t lead

Leadership requires you to take people to destinations they would not go without your leadership.

Stop for a moment and, if you would, re-read that sentence.

Do you see the challenge?

Leadership is inherently difficult because it requires a leader to take people where they don’t naturally want to go.

So you have a choice as a leader.

You can focus on leading people, or focus on being liked.

When you focus on being liked, you will instinctively try to please the people you’re leading. And when you do, you will become confused.

Pleasing people is inherently confusing because people don’t agree. One person wants it one way. Another wants it another way.

And soon, you’re bending over backwards to make everyone happy, which of course means that in the end, you will end up making no one happy, including yourself. It’s actually a recipe for misery for everyone.

It’s also a recipe for inertia.

If you focus on being liked, you won’t lead. You will never have the courage to do what needs to be done.

By the way, if you’re a real people pleaser by nature, here’s a post outlining 5 ways people pleasing undermines your leadership.

2. You will have to withstand seasons of being misunderstood

Effective leaders are prepared to be misunderstood.

There will be seasons in leadership in which you will be misunderstood.

Your motives, strategy and skill will be questioned.

It happened to Moses. It happened to Jesus. It happened to Paul. It will happen to you if you’re leading.

There are two extremes that happen when leaders are misunderstood.

Some leaders think everyone else is wrong and they’re absolutely right.

Some leaders believe the critics must be right and question themselves…to the point of quitting the change or quitting entirely.

We’ve all seen leaders who are convinced they’re right and everyone else is wrong. Not fun.

So how do you ensure you’re not that person without becoming the person who caves or becomes paralyzed in the face of opposition?

Simple. Test your motives. Ask yourself:

Is this change really going to help people? Or am I doing it for a selfish or questionable reason?

If the change isn’t faithful, helpful or going to help people in the long run, abandon it.

If it is faithful and it’s going to help people in the long run, stick with it.

Leadership is a little like parenting. You do things your kids dislike because it’s good for them.

And in leadership, you lead people through seasons they don’t want to go through because in the end, it’s good for them.

And if it’s good for them, most of them will thank you in the end. Your job is to get them to the point where they benefit from the change.

Which is why you need to learn to endure being misunderstood when the misunderstanding arises from a legitimate change that, in the end, moves the mission and the community to a better place.

If you struggle with opposition to change, I outlines a detailed five part strategy on how to navigate change in the face of opposition in my book, Leading Change Without Losing It.

3. You can lead and still be likeable

So, you might think, you’re basically saying I have to be a jerk  or a cold, calloused human being to lead?

Not at all.

Just because you’re leading people to a place they would not naturally go doesn’t mean you have to abandon grace, humility, kindness, forgiveness or mercy.

In fact, the more you embrace characteristics like mercy, kindness, forgiveness, grace and humilty, the more effective you will be at leading change.

The trick is that there might not be an immediate pay back.

There’s a tendency in all of us that longs for the dynamic of ‘offer and acceptance’.

I offer you forgiveness, you accept.

I offer you mercy, you say thank you.

I show kindness, you reciprocate.

There will be entire seasons of your leadership in which you will offer all of the above and more and people will not reciprocate.

You have to learn to be okay with that. Even when you’re not okay with it.

When people don’t respond in kind, you must still be gracious, still be humble, still be kind, still be forgiving, even if it hurts. And it will hurt.

But in the end, your character will win out.

Usually, if the change is a good one and you have led well, people will ultimately see it was a good move. And they will eventually be thankful for it and often for you.

Sometimes—even if the change is good—there will be a few who never thank you and still don’t like you. That’s okay, because you took the high road. You can look in the mirror with some satisfaction knowing you did all that you could and did it with all integrity. You fought the good fight.

God sees what people don’t.

And sometimes, that’s enough.

So do the things that make someone likeable without worrying whether people will like you.

You will lead better.

And people will be well led.

What are you learning about leadership and likeability? Anything you’d add to this list?

Scroll down and let me know what you think in the comments.

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  • Rob Clark

    This is so good. Trying to please everyone is one of my biggest weaknesses. It’s funny, though. When I take the step, when I do what is right, I’m not nearly as bothered by adverse reactions as I thought I would be.

    And thank you for the part about being misunderstood! I get insecure when people don’t jump onboard the way I expect. “Am I not leading well? Am I not communicating clearly? Have I chosen the wrong team?” Possibly. But, as you said, those seasons will come. I feel more prepared already!

  • Andreha Kaiser

    One thing I am learning is that God is stretching me and pulling me and teaching me some crazy hard lessons. Preparing me for something bigger. I am taking a test and I hope I pass. Doesn’t mean that it wont be hard. BUT EVERYDAY I PRAY FOR WISDOM AND STRENGTH!!

  • Jaci

    This blog is a good reminder to me. In the past, I served as leader for a variety of boards and organizations and never really struggled with balancing the need to lead and be liked, but the changes when I was elected as president of our church council. Although still fairly new to the position, I can see where I’ve handled things differently simply because I’m afraid of upsetting the apple cart (and the peach cart, and the potato bin ?). I’m thankful for having been provided a link to this!

  • Chuck

    I need to print this out and staple it to my next round of student evaluations! Seriously, academe is assessment happy right now and needs a cold drink of this!!

    • Thanks Chuck. Funny how this stuff sneaks up on us, isn’t it?

  • Irene

    Thanks for the article! It was a timely piece for me to read. Blessings.

  • DT

    Very good article. I worked with people over the years that I didn’t particularly like, but I respected. In order to be respected, you can’t talk about others behind their back or blame others for anything you try that fails.

  • Dan Ryan

    Really enjoyed your post-there is a big difference between being liked and respected and some of the best leaders are not well liked, but very respected. Those who are respected have a firm foundation. Without that foundation you will shift with the winds of change and please no one.

    Thanks for sharing and linking this go our creator.

    • Thanks Dan. You’re right. Most biblical leaders went through seasons of being disliked but withstood it. A leader takes people where they wouldn’t normally go without the leader’s influence.

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  • Misskwame76 .

    Thanks for the tips! You’re right…It’s difficult being yourself as a leader if you’re worried about people liking you. I can attest to that. I questioned my worth and whether I was right for the position. While I’m better I find that I’m often criticized for not being the leader others think I should be. I’m just trying to be myself and it sucks when I fall into the trap of thinking that’s not good enough.

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  • Nancy K. Gardner Shute

    At some point in parenting my kids I came to the realization that I was not their friend, I was their mom. My job was to raise healthy, well balanced, law abiding, with whom others wanted to be in community. I love them, but I refuse to allow the pressure of being liked by them dissuade me from my job as a parent.
    Leading a congregation is much the same, except I am the leader and we are on the journey as adults together. Fighting the “like monster” can be lonely. However, I must be true to my call as pastor.

    • Nancy K. Gardner Shute

      Oops, that should read. “Law abiding citizens.”

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  • Brandon

    But can you lead and be unlikeable?

    • If I understand your question, yes. But if that’s your character, you’re a bit of a jerk. And I don’t think people with character would follow you for long. If that’s where you were going Brandon.

      • Brandon

        It is. Maybe it’s not applicable to ministry, but in the professional world, jerks do get to be leaders. But eventually they become leaders only to people who have no other options.