Leadership and likeability

John Key
John Key

It's election time and increasingly it seems voters make their decision based on who they like the most, rather than on awareness of party policy. 

John Key's apparent easy and authentic friendliness makes him likeable while David Cunliffe seems to struggle to build affinity.

Does that mean that John Key is a better leader than David Cunliffe? Not necessarily, yet a large part of the future Government will be chosen based on a popularity contest.

So what is the relationship between leadership and likeability? Does being liked make you a good leader?   Well yes, and no. 

People are more inclined to go the extra mile for people they like.  Being able to build rapport and to connect emotionally and socially with people is an incredibly useful leadership asset.

Where it can be a problem is when our desire to be liked gets in the way of effective leadership. I fell into this trap in my first major leadership role as the GM of an advertising agency.

We had a client that was tough and uncompromising and a job we did for them had an unforeseeable bad result.  When the client came back at us in an aggressive and litigious manner I took a combative attitude because I wanted to look like the good guy in the eyes of staff.

The result was a disaster and contributed to us eventually losing the client and a very large chunk of revenue. Leading to be liked had corrupted my decision-making. 

With hindsight, I should have acknowledged to staff that the client was tough and that we needed to take that on the chin, roll up our sleeves and find a solution.  Many staff might not have liked that decision, but it would have protected revenue and saved jobs.

Likeability is good if it's a by-product of how a leader operates rather than the driving force. One of the key ways of operating that builds likeability is being perceived as honest and trustworthy.

Over the last fifteen years we have asked thousands of people to identify the top four attributes they look for in a leader. The number one attribute that comes out time and time again is they want leaders who are honest. 

Honesty doesn't mean people expect their leaders to be an open book because there are always commercial, personal or political issues to manage. 

I once worked with a CEO who had a saying, "I'll be honest with you about what I can be honest with you about, and I'll be honest with you about the things I can't be honest with you about."  People appreciate this distinction and it is one I've used many times. 

Effective leaders build trust by communicating and demonstrating their belief in others.  Actively seeking out someone's opinions and ideas is a great way of communicating your trust in them.  On the flip side, nothing communicates distrust faster than micro managing.

Here are some other ways to build trust:

  • Don't joke, or gossip about people when they're not present. I had a boss who, after a glass or two, would start to bad mouth people who weren't there. I always left thinking, 'I wonder what he says about me when I'm not there?'.
  • Keep your promises - tell people what you are going to do and then do it. Make commitments carefully and keep them.
  • If you mess up, clean up, and quickly. If you make a mistake, own up and apologise and don't go looking to off-load blame.
Nick Sceats is managing director of leadership performance and development company, Catapult.