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Or at least, they should not strive to be popular. Why? Because being popular is rather a liability than an advantage. Why? Because being popular is not very sustainable? Why? Because it puts leaders in a very weak spot when things get rough. Or they know they will have to disappoint people at some point.
popular leaders

No Popularity Contest

Leaders in organisations usually do not get elected. If leadership is linked to a role, leaders get nominated. If the leadership is linked to a person, they receive the authority of a leader from the so-called followers. In democracies there is always a popular vote. And the thing is, today people vote for politicians because they are popular. And popularity often comes from making promises. It’s less about keeping them.
Politicians live from election to election. But leaders in organizations have to convince their stakeholders every day. And these stakeholders may have conflicting and changing interests. Leaders need to balance those interests. But it means that leaders cannot satisfy all the stakeholders all the time. And because of this leaders should not go for popularity.
I could argue that not all the stakeholders are as important. That is true. There is one stakeholder who is more important than the others. It’s the customer. Or if you work in care, the patient. Or if you work in a public service, the citizen. Why? It’s the customer who gives meaningfulness to the entire organisation. That does not mean leaders should focus on the customer to the detriment of other stakeholders (employees, suppliers).


Leadership is only sustainable if the leader balances the interests of the ones who you work for (the customer) with the interests of the ones that do the work. And the latter group includes not only the employees (or larger the people working for the organisation) but also the shareholder and the leaders themselves.
I often hear the argument that leaders should only serve the shareholder. It’s the shareholder who takes the risk by investing in the company. But even the shareholder cannot have a return of investment when the customer is not satisfied. Or when employees do not deliver quality services and products.
Maybe balance is not the best word to pick? Let’s talk about integration. What if leaders can integrate the interests of stakeholders (including their own) into their approach. In that way they are not terrorized by the expectations of only one of the stakeholders and they avoid becoming a puppet on a string. And they do not have to be popular as it does not add anything to that integration. And although I think customers should have priority, leaders should not let them terrorise their organisation either.
So the only popularity leaders should strive for, is the popularity of products or services with the customers. And that puts everything into perspective. The leader can take unpopular decisions, as long as they meet customer expectations, and integrated with the interests of the other stakeholders.

Being Popular Is not Sustainable

Leaders sometimes seek popularity with their teams. They are eager to please. But these leaders lack strength. Those who are eager to please their team members will ultimately fail. Being popular is not sustainable. There are 3 reasons for that.

  1. They will make too many promises that they cannot keep. And although every leader does that, if it happens too often there is a lack of credibility.
  2. They will indulge too much. They will sedate people by increasing their comfort zone. They will avoid debate, conflict and difficult feedback. They are unable to go against the grain.
  3. People will get used to what a leader does. And either they will not accept a change or they will demand more. It’s extremely an indulging leader to stop indulging.

Leaders need to show courage and be willing to disappoint people.  They need to take actions that sometimes go against the preferences of some of the stakeholders. But the purpose of these actions is to increase overall value. The paralysing effect of popularity is tremendous.
Leaders should also show their humanity. If there are difficult decision ahead, leaders can take them with fairness, empathy, kindness and reciprocity. Leaders who do that might become popular after all. But they did not strive to be. And the popularity is then based on deep respect, rather than on comfort.
In my book on sustainable leadership I explain what it is that makes leadership sustainable.


David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


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