Liked or Respected?

The theme of this blog is to encourage leaders to be reflective. I encourage leaders to think about everything from how they spend the time in their day, to how they measure success. So, today I want leaders to reflect on a question they all must answer. The choice can be summarized as this: 

Do you, as a leader, want to be liked or respected?

The default answer that I hear from leaders is often an immediate, “respected.” I understand this response because I share it. Yet, I have discovered that prioritizing leading in a way that earns respect can be difficult.

We must first acknowledge that there is a part in all of us that wants to be liked by others. In fact, part of being human is being in communion with others. This starts with our nuclear family, spreads to our friends, and eventually involves those we work with. This reality goes so deep that the saying, “we crave being liked”, is too simplistic. In reality, we crave “acceptance” as human beings.   

Social media’s popularity also speaks to our society’s value in being “liked.” Not only is there a button for it, but as social media has increased, so has division. While there are multiple factors for increased divisiveness, one reason could be that words shared on social media are having tremendous influence. In other words, the notion that “words will never hurt me,” is not true on social media! Nor, would I argue, is it true in the workplace. In both regards, our innate human nature is to be liked by others.

Part of being a leader, however, is doing the things no one else wants to do. These are the actions that make leaders worth being followed, but they also can come at a cost. For example, when a leader tackles a difficult HR issue, or a tricky customer problem, they are often doing the things no one else wants to do. But the action they take might not make everyone happy. This, in return, might make them less liked.

This reality is why doing the hard things is not easy. There can be a cost to it. Therefore, some leaders avoid doing it altogether in hopes that they maintain their “likeability.”

Doing the hard things, however, is how leaders become respected. The upside-down nature of leadership is that you sometimes have to set aside what you ultimately want in pursuit of the overall wellbeing of others. You have to set aside your “self,” for the sake of others, especially when what you are about to do is not “popular.”

Make no mistake about it, leadership is hard in this regard.

So, coming full circle, this is why I am encouraging leaders to reflect on whether they want to be liked or respected. While it is natural, even human, to seek being liked, I have discovered in my own leadership that seeking to be liked has made me a poor leader. When the desire to be liked takes me over, I can sometimes avoid doing the often unpopular, and always hard, things. Unfortunately, not addressing issues inevitably makes me less liked, and less respected, anyway.

I encourage you to gain clarity for yourself around the question of what matters more, being liked, or respected? Remember, a leader is not someone with a title. A leader is someone with influence. The gateway to influence is doing the things no one else wants to do.

These are the things that earn the respect of others! 

Bonus Material: 

In a rough draft of this blog, I included the following as two things I do to help me pursue respectability. Please note that even as I write the words above, doing the hard things is, well, hard for me to do continually. Knowing this about me, I need to build in support. What follows are two ways in which I am supported. Leadership is, after all, difficult to do well:

First, I have discovered that having an Executive Coach helps hold me accountable to my intention of being respected. My coach is good at asking for examples with regard to decisions I have made. This forces me to assess, among other things, whether I was acting out of a need to be liked, or whether I was doing the hard things that earn respect. A good coach also looks for blind spots and areas that I am ignoring. Both of these are extremely helpful as well. I strongly encourage all leaders to have a coach in their life. 

Another important thing I do is connect with other Senior Leaders outside of our organization. This is helpful for two reasons. First, it legitimately scratches the “like” itch. As a type-A leader, a weakness of mine is to downplay my need for social acceptance. But it is legitimate and how I was created. To that end, I am thankful for some of the subscribers to this blog that I connect with regularly. Iron does sharpen iron!  

To that end, the second benefit connecting with other leaders brings is the ability to listen to their leadership struggles. This has a way of feeding, and encouraging me to take action on more of my own struggles. Similarly, talking through my struggles with them can have the same effect for them because it reminds them, and me, that what we are experiencing is not unique. In other words, we are not in isolation. There are others experiencing what we are experiencing. This reminder is vital.