You Don’t Have to Be Likable to Be a Great Leader
MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How important is likability when it comes to leadership? is written by Perry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners.
As we can see from the headlines these days, political campaigns have for many people become more like popularity contests, hinging on questions like “who would you rather have a beer with?” or “who looks better on TV?” – as if either of these things has any relevance on who is the most qualified to lead the country. Call me crazy, but when I cast my ballot in November I’ll be deciding based on my understanding of the candidates’ policy positions and track record. I may not love who I vote for – sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t – but I won’t be concerned that how much I like the person will have any real bearing on how effective they’ll be as president.
And this is just another reason why I’m in business not politics. In business, trust, respect and what I call “value-add” are way more important than looks and likability. So to answer the question directly I’d say that likability is a “nice to have” not a “must have” in business.
Why do I say this? First, if you review the most successful Fortune 500 CEOS of the past 25 years, you’ll see that most wouldn’t be described as nice or attractive. Indeed, many were feared, disliked and not particularly photogenic.
My own experience supports this as well. There are many bosses I’ve worked for whom I didn’t really like — whom I wouldn’t care to have a beer with but were great leaders nonetheless. Likewise, I’ve had both bosses and colleagues whom I’ve liked very much but whom I wouldn’t rate very highly in terms of their effectiveness. In contrast, I’ve never worked for a truly effective and impactful leader who wasn’t worthy of trust and respect for their ability to make a real difference within the organization.
I myself have often told my people that they don’t have to like me. It’s a bonus if they do – and often I do become friends with those I work with – but truly that is a bonus. Case in point is a man in my consulting company in London. He was “difficult” and because of this some of the people in the office wouldn’t ask him to join their project teams. But I always asked him to join mine. Why? Because he was the best. Simple as that. He did what he said he would do and it was always quality work. So, even if I had to smooth over some sharp elbow moments, I didn’t care. I was all about getting the client the best product/outcome possible.
Thankfully, I think more people are beginning to see things this same way. There is a growing body of research demonstrating that diverse teams perform better and encouraging leaders to surround themselves with individuals with different skills, beliefs and backgrounds. This trend says to me that likability in business is less important than performance. And business’s clarity about what matters most and its focus on delivery/outcome is one of the things I value most about the sector. So, while I’m disappointed in our political process these days, I rejoice in the shifts going on in industry — growing recognition for valuing substance over social graces and insight and action over just fitting in. Net net: if you ever have to choose between being liked versus being respected and valued, choose respect and value every time.