I was reading the Sunday NY Times this morning (my weekly old-school ritual) and came across this quote in Adam Bryant’s “Corner Office” column:
I used to care a lot that people liked me. That’s no longer as much the case. Of course, nobody wants not to be liked, but I don’t care as much. I remember feeling liberated when it no longer influenced my decision-making. – Deborah Bial, president of the Posse Foundation
These words brought back to mind my own struggles with the need to be liked. When I was suddenly thrust into a COO-type role when I was 27, the desire to be liked was at the forefront of just about everything I said and did.
After all, it was so human to want to be liked. And I had a real fear of the opposite – to be disliked – because of a few childhood experiences that left a big mark on me.
Which takes us to the corollary to liked: to belong. I always equated being liked to full acceptance into the tribe. That sense of security, of belonging. Conversely, during those times I was shunned, and not part of a desired tribe, I felt isolated. Alone. Lost.
It was with those deep inner feelings that I jumped into the leadership pool back in 1987, and like Deborah Bial, I really did care a lot that people liked me.
And it affected my leadership in a very unproductive way. Instead of focusing on good business decisions, I focused on decisions that kept me in the tribe – “one of the guys”, as it were.
Compounding the issue were my direct observations of my boss at the time, who was totally disliked and isolated in his ivory tower, and was almost always unhappy.
I knew I couldn’t just reverse course and forget about being liked. I did NOT want to end up like my boss. But on the other hand, I wasn’t making good decisions.
One day, after weeks of frustration, it finally dawned on me – there WAS a middle ground I could strive for.
It was exactly what Deborah said in that quote – “don’t care as much“. I dialed it down a notch or two. But I still cared. I decided that if I was going to make better decisions that were not unduly influenced by my fears of being disliked, I needed to still care about the people that were being effected by those decisions, by being three things:
Fair and unbiased
Transparent and honest
Contextual (always explaining the “why”)
Once I followed these new rules, I could make the hard decisions that would displease people – and because I was fair, honest and contextual, the resulting “disliking” would almost always focus on the decision, and not me personally.
So by being less focused on being liked and more focused on the people I led, and the decision process itself, I actually WAS more liked and accepted by my team.
Which brings us back to the headline question: Do Leaders Need to Be Liked To Be Successful?
I would say this: Yes, but it’s more than OK to have your decisions disliked, provided you follow my rules.