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Navigating Leadership Dynamics: Embracing Likability!

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Benjamin F. Martin, Staff Judge Advocate
  • 88th Air Base Wing

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – I recently came across a thought-provoking quote from psychologist Adam Grant emphasizing the significance of leaders earning the respect of their teams. It sparked cognitive dissonance and a passionate reflection.  Here’s the quote: 

"Leaders shouldn't aim to be liked. They should strive to be respected. We don't have to agree with every decision. We need to align with their visions and admire their values. Trust isn't granted for competence alone. It's earned through caring about people and principles." 

Grant's statement aligns with the wisdom found in numerous leadership books and resonates with military audiences steeped in leadership training courses. All that said…I disagree! 

The Likability Advantage: 

Let's cut through the high-minded ideals for a moment. In the real world of office politics, likability matters. A lot. Supervisors with questionable emotional intelligence cling to sentiments like the one above. Their internal dialogue reassures them that they’re not jerks, it’s just that their lack of decency and relationship-building with employees is justified because they're focused on building respect.   

The Reality Check: 

Yes, building respect is crucial, but let's not kid ourselves. Likability plays a pivotal role in day-to-day interactions. When a leader is genuinely liked, it sets the stage for smoother collaboration, open communication, and a generally positive work environment.  

Beyond the interpersonal benefits, there's a pragmatic reason for leaders to invest in employee relationships—earning the benefit of the doubt. Mistakes are part of the journey for all leaders, and likability can be the bridge that fosters understanding and forgiveness. 

Think back on your own experiences. When your boss made a mistake did you reflect on their vision or a personal values statement? Probably not.  Alternatively, if that boss was decent to you and the staff, did you instead shrug your shoulders, mutter under your breath about the boss, and then forgive the error because you knew the boss generally meant well?  It might be condescending to think, “bless their heart” about our boss…but that’s more accurate than pretending we responded by reflecting on their vision and values. 

Anticipating Objections 

I can anticipate at least two objections that I need to address before going further. 

First, being likeable is not about being the office clown, treating leadership as a popularity contest, or giving employees whatever, they want; it's about being approachable and decent to your team members. Think of it as demonstrating strong emotional intelligence. 

Second, likability had a shelf life for leaders with fatal flaws and competence issues.  Likability might earn you the benefit of the doubt in the short term, but long-term success does need to be more firmly grounded in competence and values. 

Striking a Balance - Not an Either/Or: 

The danger lies in interpreting the initial quote as an either/or scenario. Likability and respect aren't mutually exclusive; they can and should coexist. Effective leadership involves a delicate dance of earning respect through competence and vision while recognizing the significance of personal connections. High emotional intelligence is about understanding that fostering positive relationships doesn't undermine the pursuit of long-term goals; it enhances it. 

Let's Get Real: 

In the trenches of leadership, it's about time we acknowledge that likability is not a superficial pursuit. It's a strategic asset that can amplify a leader's impact. Supervisors, take note: engaging with your team on a personal level doesn't dilute your authority; it humanizes you. It's time to debunk the myth that leaders must choose between being liked and being respected.