The Elusive Popularity Pie

“How to be a popular leader?” I asked Sam (name changed), the role model leader in our company.

 As a budding project manager in 2006, I looked around for motivation, a mentor who would help equip me with the “Art of Leadership”…  I sought mentorship from Sam. He was an ideal role model – he had charisma, quick decision making, adept in domain and technology, and above all – great people connect.

“No wonder everyone loves him.. What makes him so popular among his peers, sub-ordinates and bosses” – we discussed in our circle of budding project managers who where taking their first few lessons in leadership.

In one of our mentorship sessions, I discussed with him on several topics on leadership… finally, I got to the question –

“How do I become a popular leader? How do I have people like me as their leader of the pack like you do?

I expected a bullet pointed list that would give me the recipe of the elusive popularity pie, and had my notepad ready with eager anticipation

Instead I got a short and curt response….

“It’s not my job to be liked, it’s my job to get things done. There is nothing like a popular leader… the moment you let your actions be driven with a motive to be and or remain popular or earn brownie points, you have failed as a leader….. good leadership would mean annoying few people…“.

I stared at Sam, letting the words sink into my system….

Leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the entire group, which means that some people will get angry or upset at your actions and decisions.  It’s inevitable, if you’re honorable.

Getting everyone to like you is a sure sign of mediocrity. As a result you will,

  • Avoid making tough decisions
  • Avoid confronting people who should be confronted.
  • Avoid giving rewards to high performers because few others may get upset
  • Avoid giving the right feedback to people, which in turn does not help the individual be better prepared for the challenges ahead..

 Sooner than later, the high performers in your group / company will get upset, lose faith in you as a leader, and eventually part ways. A leader has to be firm and just in maintaining necessary order. Without a certain toughness in this regard you will not win the respect of the group as a whole.

A case to the point is that several of the best leaders or managers have been task masters – In football Alex Ferguson is well known for delivering the ‘hair dryer treatment’ to poorly performing players.  Jack Welch was arguably one of the best leaders of the 20th Century and was renowned for his ruthlessness with respect to performance.

In my experience, I have had the good fortune to work with three of the best leaders & mentors during my formative years as a manager – all of them – stoic, up-front and clear in what they wanted, when they wanted and the quality that they wanted. Some of their actions were not popular – and resulted in lunch table musings & grumblings – yet, I believe they were for the overall well-being and progress of the account as a whole.

Today, all the three are deservedly  among the MOST respected leaders in the company.

Assertiveness and popularity are usually inversely proportional – but I wonder how much assertiveness is ideal? Hmmm…..

What do you think?


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