Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
June 8, 2018

Likability in Leadership: Necessary for Some, a Liability for Others

This post was originally published on www.greatleadershipbydan.com.

We had a basic rule of thumb for hiring in my first job in management consulting. After the first or second round of interviews, if the candidate scored high on prerequisites like functional knowledge and leadership ability, the team would gather for a reality check and ask each other: "Would you mind being stuck in an airport for nine hours with this person?” If the answer was, "No way," we’d usually move on to the next highly qualified candidate. Consulting is a time-intensive business where exhaustive hours are spent traveling to remote locations, making presentations together in close-quarter conference rooms, and collaborating with customers. In general, you have to like the people you work with.

However, it’s not the same in every case — likability does not necessarily equal followership when it comes to leadership. When I conduct executive assessments or performance interviews, for instance, I don’t need to hear that a leader is highly likable. In fact, if that’s the first thing a colleague says about a leader, it gives me pause. There are other arguably more important elements in gaining the respect necessary to lead. It’s also worth noting that overemphasizing likability can increase the risk of unconscious bias. We’re predisposed to favor people who are similar to us and often ascribe positive qualities they may or may not have.

When I weigh the pros and cons of likability, I put the question into context by looking at three lenses that help calibrate the question:

The first context is culture. A leader’s disposition needs to be in sync with the culture of a company. I met with the CHRO of a staffing firm recently and the first thing I thought was: “This person is really nice and I can see why she is so respected here.” The organization was relatively small, everyone was together in one location, and they relied on local contacts to keep the business going. Likability was built into the formula. Would that same CHRO be as successful at a firm where the culture was more about innovation and less about continuity? Doubtful.

Industry is the second context to consider. When people talk about the qualities that made Steve Jobs so successful, likability doesn’t always appear on the short list. Yet, he was one of the most admired leaders of our time. Apple is in an industry where fresh ideas, fast thinking and constant change are keys to success. Jobs brought a highly distinctive design vision that keyed in on user experience and an eye for engineering excellence that few could match. He was a brilliant in all the ways that mattered, and that, more than likability, gained him the followership he needed to lead in computing. Likewise, the aggressive and purportedly overbearing Jack Welch was highly respected and emulated at GE and beyond, but likability was not a key ingredient for leading a massively complex global conglomerate.

Lastly, I look at circumstance. In general, I would expect customer-facing leaders to be likable, but the benchmark may be somewhat different for other types of functional or technical leaders. Likewise, there are numerous extenuating circumstances that make likability in a leader more or less necessary. If a leader is charged with reengineering or remaking a failing organization, they must be empathetic, but perhaps likability is too much to expect. Whereas if a leader is hired to improve employee engagement, shore up retention and bring the organization together, then achieving the necessary followership may depend upon being likable.

In leadership, likability looks different depending upon the context. The best leaders are decisive, command respect and connect with their followers. That won’t happen if a leader is a bully, tyrant or, yes, just plain untrustworthy. But likable? It’s not always a necessary quality in a leader.

Cassandra Frangos, Ed.D., is a consultant on Spencer Stuart’s Leadership Advisory Services team. She collaborates with Fortune 500 leadership teams on executive assessments, succession planning, leadership development and top team effectiveness. She recently authored Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful Leaders Make it to the Top. Reach her via email and follow her on LinkedIn.