Popularity in Leadership


image Had a really strange day today. Lot’s of thought on strategy at work, a series of striking events, participation in #LeadershipChat, and finally an album that took me back to a reflective time in my life.

During #LeadershipChat, Lou Imbriano said True leaders have little concern with popularity ~ which leads to credibility. This lead to a mini-debate that was partly brought about by trying to make things black-and-white and the fact that we were communicating 140 characters at a time.

One key distinction is that there are two aspects of leadership that are impacted by popularity, the leaders and the decisions they make.

Popularity as a Metric

Successful leaders are popular leaders. Taking it a step further, they are loved (which most agreed upon). For this discussion, lets stick with popularity as loved leaders are popular.

Leaders should not strive to be popular. They should work to achieve the vision and goals of the organization. Popularity is a side effect. This side effect can be measured.

Why measure it? Unpopular leaders are going to be ineffective. Popularity is a useful measurement. It isn’t the only one, but it definitely is one.

Remember, leadership isn’t a popularity contest. It also isn’t something that permits you to come in last in that same contest. A manager can be effective if they aren’t popular but a leader cannot.

Boiling Down to Decisions

image Decisions are a different matter. Leaders have to be able to make unpopular decisions from time-to-time. If only popular decisions were required, every company would be successful.

Of course, if every decision is unpopular, there are one of two things that I would point two as reasons:

  1. The leader is making bad decisions
  2. The organization is not ready to be lead in that direction

The second point is important to explore. Let’s take the software market as an place to explore.

The “cloud” is a reality, regardless of how you define it. There are various technical and business aspects that differ between traditional software models and those that deliver via the “cloud” (I’m speaking primarily of Software-as-a-Service).

To make the transition, software companies are going to have to make a lot of tough decisions. Those decisions won’t be popular with large portions of their employee base. They will also alienate some of their existing customers. The pay-off is potentially huge and may make the difference between being a market leader and obsolescence.

If an organization isn’t ready to buy into a new vision, all decisions made in support of that vision will be unpopular. As a result, the leader will become unpopular and ineffective. It isn’t necessarily the fault of the leader (though it may be). It is a measurement of the organization’s readiness to adopt the new vision.

The Take Away?

The point is simple. A leader makes the decisions that need to be made. The decisions should be the right ones, not necessarily the popular ones. Measuring the popularity of a leader is just a way to measure the alignment of a leaders execution against the vision of values of an organization.

Popularity isn’t the only metric for a leader and is not the most important one. It is one that needs to be considered on a regular basis.

One thought on “Popularity in Leadership

  1. Lisa McIntyre says:

    Great distinctions. Would expand to say that it is because of a leader’s popularity that we can stomach those unpopular decisions. With popularity comes trust (or maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing). Regardless, with trust comes the ability to work through those unpopular decisions.

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