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This blog is about fear and trust.


Popularity Revisited

My earlier post on popularity seemed to have touched many people. There were many discussions on Linkedin and the number of views went ballistic. Why would that be?
Popularity is controversial. At first sight, popularity seems good. Popular people get a high-ranking. Popular people have a lot of people on their tail. They can get things done.
But it’s a mixed blessing.
There are two sides to popularity. People who are popular are ranked higher by their peers. But being popular is not the same as being liked. People who are popular seem to use more aggressive tactics to get and maintain their high ranking.  It’s possible to be popular without being liked, or without getting any respect.
Look at this matrix.

Who’s the leader here?

The true leaders are on the right side of the matrix. They can be either liked or not liked, but they get respect. Does someone really have to like the leader they are working for? Not at all. But it helps. However if being liked would be the purpose of leader it would make leadership unsustainable. So leaders should not strive for a status of being liked.
There will be situations that will nudge leaders towards taking tough decisions. And if they do, they might be liked less. If being popular is about being liked, than being liked is not an asset to a leader.
It happens that someone in a leadership position is likeable, but not respected. People have sympathy for this person, but they do not see that person as a leader. They might cover for the weaknesses simply because they like the person. They might even have pity for someone who is not up to the task. This situation is not very sustainable. One can even raise the question why this person is liked? Is it because of authentic behaviour, good intentions, prosocial behaviour? Or is it because having a weaker leader opens up perspectives?
The leader that is not liked nor respected has an even bigger problem. Still, there are people like that in leadership positions. How do they maintain themselves? Probably by creating a system around them. They might be very controlling. They might hire people who are weaker? They might engage in anti-social behaviour. They might use certain traits like charisma to sedate the context around them. They might use fear.

Management by Fear?

There’s a saying that it is better to be feared than to be liked. The quote comes from Machiavelli and is incomplete. The full quote is It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” According to Machiavelli a leader had to be both loved and feared. But if we would translate the quote to current times, we’d talk about respect and trust.
Being feared is not sustainable? Why? Think about what leaders needs to do to be feared. They need to engage in certain behaviour that does reinforce their trustworthiness. Being feared destroys trustworthiness. And think about the consequences of fear? The biggest result is that fear paralyses organizations. People will only do the things that are allowed. They will avoid punishment.
There is not much to be expected from fear.  Fear is the ultimate tactic of control, but it is not sustainable. It only provokes negative behaviours, resistance, passive aggression, …
Machiavelli was right. You don’t need to be liked to get respect. And you need the respect more than you need the likes. But Machiavelli was right too when he said it’s best to have both the love and the respect.

Isn’t it about Trust?

Look at the variation of the earlier matrix.

In my book on sustainable leadership I talk about the importance of trust for a leader. Trust based on personal characteristics is what makes leadership sustainable. Being trustworthy is about being competent, loyal and integer. There is no “liked” in that definition. Being liked is not needed if you want to be trusted. Leaders who show empathy and fairness, kindness and reciprocity, will be trusted, and respected. And they might get high likability scores. They can be tough in their decisions, but fair. They can be demanding and kind at the same time.
Leaders should not strive for popularity, but for respect and for being perceived as trustworthy.

Trust and verify

Good leaders are not naïve. They will not assume everyone is to be trusted all of the time. They will not tolerate bad behaviour. Nor will they invest in low performance. A manager told me once he was in a board meeting and he came in unprepared. The newly appointed CEO asked him to stay after the meeting was over and he simply told him: “You are a disgrace to your position and to this company. If you want to stay, you will never come again to one of my meetings without proper preparation“. This leader drew a line in the sand and made it clear what he expected. So trust is not naive. It’s always to trust, but to verify if someone is worthy of the trust.
That leader had no intention to create fear. He wanted to be clear about the expected standards of performance. This is respectful towards oneself and towards others. And that’s what leaders do. They achieve results through people, who accept their leadership because there is trust.
Gaining respect is one of the engines of sustainable leadership. And leaders do that by building their leadership not on roles, competencies, power , position or fear, but simply on character. Only then leadership will be sustainable. Sustainable leaders might enjoy some degree of popularity, but it’s a consequence rather than a target.

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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