Your team needs you to lead, they don’t have to like you

Great leaders in history did not act because they were concerned with how many “likes” they would get on Instagram.


Being a leader is hard. All eyes are on you. You are accountable for successes and failures. Yet sometimes, you question what you’re doing. One of the primary responsibilities of a leader is to be emotionally in synch with their followers—but this does not mean you have to be everyone’s friend.


This means you often need to demonstrate an aspirational level of comfort in difficult conversations, showing you understand your team’s needs and hopes, demonstrating a path towards growth and development, and not wavering under pressure.


Often, you may encounter challenging situations when you need to put on a brave face so others won’t worry. If you succeed, you’re a hero, but if you fail, you may lose your job or have to terminate someone else’s. In truth, it is a lonely position. There is no soft way to put it: If you’re charged with being the leader, you just can’t worry about what others think about you. It is called leadership, not liker-ship.


You may think this might not always be completely true. Certain elements of how your actions are perceived—integrity, clear communication, accountability—are relevant in evaluating leaderly competence. But how likable you are? This is not a gray area. As François de Charette is credited with saying, “You cannot make an omelet without cracking some eggs.”


Great leaders in history did not act because they were concerned with how many “likes” they would get on Instagram. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did not concern herself with making friends as she directed New Zealand’s response to COVID any more than Abraham Lincoln did when he sought to lead the country through civil war. And while former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell may be credited with being a master situational leader, his quest was not to grab a beer with his oft-at-odds coworkers. Leading well means you need to do so for the sake of the cause, not the goal of being liked.




Beyond the fact that it is human nature to want to be liked, two organizational behavior theories tie affiliation into the competing priorities of leadership.


David McClelland’s Theory of Needs (also called the theory of acquired needs) studies three elements that drive our behavior. McClelland posited that we learn to want power, to achieve, and to have affiliations (e.g., relationships). Therefore, those who attain positions of power will also recognize a need for social interaction and approval. While one “need” may supersede the others, all three are always competing for balance, making it hard to want to be a leader who is not liked.

Meanwhile, when Daniel Goleman—a seminal scholar on emotional intelligence—  identified the most impactful situational leadership styles, he made it a priority to understand the underlying context of a situation before acting. He noted that an affiliative style is appropriate when the priority is group camaraderie and emotional synchrony. In this approach, regarded as highly useful in group forming and overcoming some adversity, the leader will prioritize harmony above all else. While the leader who accomplishes this may be well-liked, other metrics of success such as efficiency or quality may be impacted. Affiliative leadership is successfully used in combination with other styles, not exclusively or affirmatively.


Finally, there is the discussion of agentic versus communal behaviors typically seen in masculine and feminine styles. Whereas men are well regarded for being decisive in making strategic points in time, women typically are trusted to understand the drivers and emotional needs of the people around them and to consider how actions will build community. Although men are celebrated when they display communal behaviors, women are branded to be “harsh” or “cold” when they speak directly and candidly.


While a blended style is effective, there are challenges for male and female leaders seeking to incorporate relational aspects of leadership with decisiveness and action. Leadership includes facing these challenges and acknowledging facilitative behaviors can be highly effective, and thus are often emulated.


A leader is someone who others follow because they trust and respect them. Having a connection that is based on entertainment or easy communication is different. Research supports the value of connections to leadership and collaboration, but, in some instances, it is necessary to disassociate the concepts of likeability to be a leader.




While it is clear that we want to like those we follow, we want to follow those we respect. Colin Powell noted, “Respect for leaders by followers can’t be mandated, it must be earned. It has to be given to leaders by their followers.”


A leader who does not hold underperformers accountable will find stronger team members leave to work on a higher-functioning team. A leader who looks the other way or avoids conflict should not expect anyone to complete the work they are assigned. Being the boss people invite out to drinks is not the same as being the boss people will stick with when times get tough. And rarely, if ever, do times not become challenging. Harry Truman said it best: “The buck stops here.”


Leaders create a solid basis for development planning, (business strategy and leadership development) to improve overall performance. We encourage leaders to do a self-assessment of their comfort with the following competencies that don’t always enable popular decisions.


Establish clear accountabilities, and manage to them. Everyone on the team should be clear on what each job entails and how success is evaluated.If there is an issue with any element of completion (what or how work is executed), team members should feel comfortable asking questions and even making mistakes.


However, if there are deliberate or repeated issues with performance, these must be addressed. It isn’t fun to tell someone they messed up, but mistakes do not go unnoticed. Like a traffic stop for speeding on the highway, the perpetrator knows what they did wrong before they were ever issued the ticket. If everyone gets away with speeding, why do the right thing? Therefore, what is and is not acceptable in job performance and professional behavior should be clear. If an employee strays from these expectations, consequences should also be known and enforced.

Delegating the dirty work. It has been said that no leader should delegate anything they would not do themselves, but that doesn’t mean a leader should do everything themselves. That is, after all, why you have a team.  As a leader, you need to recognize that you have earned the role for doing things well—including the grunt work. Whether it is filing reports, making cold calls, or de-duplicating data, your team may not like some tasks, but they need to get done.


Unless you delegate all the work that is not necessary for you to personally complete, you will be bogged down in doing, not leading. As team members rise in the ranks themselves, they will also appreciate being able to delegate some of the busywork. In the meantime, they will appreciate it if you have more free time to meet with them to vet out ideas, guide efforts, or alleviate the stumbling blocks they are facing.


Holding difficult conversations. Books have been written about the topic of holding tough conversations. Some give alternative phrasing to be more constructive than critical, others about scripts that will express feelings and ensure everyone is heard. Being a leader means being the one to guide the difficult conversations.


When someone messes up, they need to hear it from their leader. Email or text messages are both passive-aggressive and do not enable two-way dialogue (important to ensure comprehension). There are few if any scenarios where work is guaranteed to go right all the time, so leaders need to be willing to sit down, look team members in the eye, and talk about mistakes, consequences, opportunities, or even end of employment. It is unfortunately part of the job.


Conflict management and resolution.  Conflict will likely arise when there is more than one way to solve a problem. The good news? Conflict means people are invested in what is happening. The bad news is that at least one person will not be happy with the outcome.


When discussing conflict, there are two options to end it: resolve it yourself (decide on what to do), or manage the parties involved to come to a mutually amenable outcome.


Either way, a good leader will listen to all sides and consider the context as they determine their next steps, but this may mean going against the wishes or wants of someone you have been friendly with. We recommend remembering that great leaders do not waiver—they can be trusted to walk their talk. Consider all sides, decide, and stand by the decision even if this means upsetting the peace.


Change management. Leaders need to be comfortable with change. Organizations that do not learn will not grow and growth requires change. Failure to change may mean demise.


As organizations mature, so too do their memories. What works versus what does not, what has been tried in the past (that did not work), what felt good versus what was hard . . . even who was trusted and who failed.


As a leader, you may find that an old method is not sustainable, an option that didn’t work years ago is right for now. In short, change is nine times out of 10 met with resistance. The artful leader will press on and manage their approach and actions to implement change. While this may mean you lose some friends, if the organization is not there, it won’t matter.


A leader is many things to many people at all times. Leaders are confident working with fluidity, complexity, and uncertainty while facilitating innovation, development, and growth. They build and maintain effective relationships by understanding the context and the emotional needs of their teams, but they are not driven to act by worrying about impression management.


If you’re feeling like you want to take it easy on the team so they will like you—or if you aim to entertain your coworkers and be their friend—know that this is not what they need. Your team needs you to lead, not be liked.



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