Learning curve: Popularity

Whether it's a contest or not, a leaders' popularity can make or break them.

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What is it? One of the most familiar business cliches is 'Leadership is not a popularity contest'. Yet we also know that capable staff who are unhappy with their masters will always be tempted to move on. So leaders cannot afford to ignore the concept of popularity. In a Harvard Business Review article in 2005, Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Lobo wrote about the 'competent jerks' and 'lovable fools' with whom we work. And they concluded that, given the choice, people often choose likability over ability when it comes to finding a partner for a project. Popularity matters at all levels.

Where did it come from? Blame democracy and universal suffrage. Napoleon didn't want to have popular generals, he wanted lucky ones. Dictators don't need to be popular, they need to be feared, as Machiavelli knew. But if leaders become too unpopular the crowd can turn - as the Romanian tyrant Nicolai Ceausescu found out. But, once we could all vote, the idea of being popular - in politics or in the workplace - took hold. Industrial democracy implied that the consent of the workforce, if not its goodwill, would be required to get things done. And if bosses could be genuinely popular, for the right reasons, so much the better.

Where is it going? Tony Blair muses in his newly published memoirs that prime ministers are at their least effective when they are most popular. It is only later in their term of office, when their popularity has sunk, that they have the battle-hardened competence and maturity required to make the tough calls. In a competitive world, however, business leaders need to be mindful of their reputation with colleagues. They do not have to be liked, but they need to be respected, and trusted. And out of that trust and respect will come a kind of popularity. After all, who wants to work for a loser?

Gradient: Ticking up.

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