February 8, 2018

Everyone wants to be liked. Given the choice between being liked or disliked, no one chooses the latter. In fact, for some leaders I’ve met, being liked is at the top of their list of priorities. They wouldn’t admit it, but their actions prove otherwise. They avoid any form of conflict, fail to speak truth, and generally blend in with the majority crowd whenever possible. However, they often do so at the expense of their effectiveness as a leader and their own authenticity. They crave perception over progress.

In a former professional life, Jim Friedman was an Emmy Award–winning TV producer and writer, but these days he is an acclaimed professor in the Institute of Entrepreneurship at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He believes that one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is trying to be liked. “However, it’s not my job to be liked,” he told me. “It’s my job to help them do their best work.” In reality, Friedman is a massively popular professor, but one of the reasons that he sometimes overhears students speaking about him unfavorably or is the target of frustration during office hours is his willingness to speak the plain truth. His directness sometimes feels abrasive to students, even when it’s the exact thing they need in order to grow. (This strategy has obviously worked well for Friedman, as he was recently voted Miami University’s Professor of the Year.)

If you tend to be a people pleaser, it is possible to flip the script, but it doesn’t mean being a dislikable SOB. Rather, it means speaking truth to people in a way they can hear it. Here are a few strategies to help you unplug from your approval addiction.

Speak Truth With Empathy

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You can be a truth-teller and do it in a way that others are likely to receive it well. Whenever you have to deliver difficult truth to someone, consider the context, the timing, and how the other person is most likely to positively receive your words. Don’t tack it on at the end of a meeting or when you’re about to rush out the door to another commitment.

Refuse to Throw Someone Under the Bus

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When others are gossiping about a friend or assign blame for something, it’s tempting to jump into the conversation in order to feel included and be liked. However, each time you engage in one of these conversations, you are creating a little breach in trust. Your co-workers or friends never know when they might be the subject of your ridicule. Never throw someone under the bus, even if it’s deserved.

Maintain Your Edge

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Your point of view is what gives you a strong competitive and creative advantage. Don’t feel the need to alter your perspective in order to be liked. The edge that people scoff at now is the very thing they will celebrate later. The opinions you hold (that few others do) and the quirky but incisive insights that you bring to the table are likely to be your calling card in years to come. That’s the stuff of great leadership.

When you arrive at a decision or are facing a crossroads with a project, ask, “Am I doing this to be liked or to be effective?” This is one of the most difficult traps to avoid.

Remember, you can be both liked and effective, but you can’t chase both at the same time. When you are genuinely living and leading from a place of empathy—of caring deeply about other people's’ ambitions and growth—they will begin to sense that even your most direct and painful feedback is in their best interest. However, when you soften your feedback to be liked, you are serving neither yourself nor the people close to you.

Excerpted from HERDING TIGERS: Be the Leader that Creative People Need by Todd Henry, published on January 16, 2018 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Todd Henry.


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