In Business, Do You Aspire to Be Loved or Respected?

Many people assume that successful leadership depends on being liked. And it’s true enough that, all things being equal, it helps to be likable. Indeed, many traits that make people likable—such as showing respect, listening discerningly, and being polite—increase the odds of long-term success. But “solving for” popularity won’t alone cut it. Steve Jobs at Apple, for example, was far more interested in  earning his colleagues’ respect than their adoration. By contrast, Southwest Airlines’ founder Herb Kellehercraved affection—but not at the expense of respect.

While popularity may feel essential in high school or in presidential politics, playing to the audience in a professional setting typically backfires. That’s because people are attracted to pleasers only until they realize that pleasing was the pleasers’ guiding principle.

When communicating only what individuals long to hear trumps truth-telling, the casualty is trust. And once leaders exhaust the currencies of trustworthiness, as well as authenticity and reliability, they generally turn to fear or power to get things done—which are tools destined to fail in the long run. Though Jobs may at times have been unlikable at Apple, even in the dark days nobody at the company doubted  he was being brutally frank with them or that his goals were based on the greater Apple good.

Most of us instinctively find it hard to follow someone enthusiastically who puts popularity above the truth. An overweening desire to be liked can make leaders put off dealing with awkward realities, which in time ironically dooms their popularity. We recognize this eventually.

Nowhere is that more obvious than with elected leaders who duck tough questions and instead craft only feel-good bromides. That M.O. has helped many politicians in our age manufacture historically low single-digit trust levels. Dancing around issues is the antithesis of leadership, but in politics we’ve come to accept the dictum, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” And yet politicians still do it—and then wonder why the public disrespects them so. Politicians don’t so much win as much as they don’t quite lose as badly as the other guy (or gal).

It wasn’t always that way. In the 1948 presidential election, someone called out to Harry Truman, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” To this, Truman quipped, “I never give them hell. I just tell them the truth and they think it’s hell.” In business, if you’re not explaining, you’re losing. The contract between business leader and follower depends on communication—before, during and after events.

Many political leaders have forgotten the Truman ethos. Thus, when political news ishell—economically and socially, domestically and internationally—our leaders avoid outlining turnaround measures that a seasoned business pro who understands the limits of popularity might undertake. I wonder if Truman in 2016 could win many primaries in a contest for the presidency. He might actually attempt to give straight, specific, plausible answers about what to do about the national debt or how to confront ISIS.

But it’s not just in the political arena that hunger to be liked in the short run can make leaders afraid to address unpleasant facts. Fear of truth of course can also make business-pleasers afraid to take on issues  they think risk their popularity and therefore their perches. In reality, however, they’re risking others’ long-term respect for them—“legacy” by another name.

Thank heavens at least that businesses aren’t run by holding elections. And thank goodness that corporate leaders aren’t allowed to print money or otherwise adopt disastrous short-term thinking. In that way, businesses have built-in structural advantages over governments—which is why it’s particularly disappointing when CEOs play political games in a desire to be liked above all.

If you’re an instinctive pleaser, don’t despair. You’re starting out with a distinct advantage. You naturally pay attention to others, especially their emotional well-being. You just have to be careful not to let your intuition override your duty to the facts. Keep on respecting the feelings of others, but add to it your determination always to be trusted. You’ll develop an unswerving personal brand. Ultimately, being a reliable truth-teller, no matter the consequences, will secure a stronger covenant with others than any fleeting measure of likability.

By Joel Peterson