Do you need to be likeable to be a good leader?

Do you need to be likeable to be a good leader?

Written by Professional Academy guest blogger Nicki Hayes

Sharing ‘a bloke down the pub told me’ story, guest blogger Nicki Hayes makes the case for President Jed Bartlet style (Martin Sheen’s character in The West Wing) leaders to step up and rule the world …

Overheard a hilarious conversation about the various leadership challenges going on around the world and the likeability of the contestants in the pub last week. Thankfully we no longer have to imagine a nylon world with both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson leading their countries. The conversation, though, which engaged more and more bystanders as it grew, did dare to go there.

Personally, I’d rather imagine a world in which President Jed Bartlet, the character played by Marten Sheen in The West Wing (my favourite TV series ever; when I can write as well as Aaron Sorkin, I’ll be content) is in charge. 

Emotionally intelligent; fair; honest; brave; generous at times, humorous at times and genuinely concerned for the welfare of others: Jed is my kind of leader.

Likeable, yes, but not because he set out to be liked, rather because he, or perhaps his creator (love you Aaron!), understood his leadership edge* and so led with the type of integrity that garners respect.

"Great leadership is not about being likeable; it’s about garnering respect by understanding your leadership edge." 

*Understanding and aligning your aspirations, strengths, values and skills enables you to find your leadership edge. There’s a great exercise on this in Strengthscope’s free collection of leadership tools (use the password ‘strengthsleader’ to access).

“So what even is ‘likeability’ anyway?”

“So, what even is likeability anyway? Is there a ‘likeability factor’?” was a key theme (and sub theme) that emerged from the spiralling discussion I witnessed. I say spiralling discussion; it was more an amusing (initially anyway) debate on various leaders around the world, past and present, real and fictional.

Who did and who didn’t have the ‘likeability factor’?

From Jed Bartlet, Atticus Finch, Coach Carter and Tony Soprano to Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Hilary Clinton, Jeremy Corbyn, Owen Smith, the afore mentioned wig twins, Sam Allardyce, Alex Ferguson and even the Dalai Lama; disagreement was rife regarding their qualities as leaders (and even human beings) let alone their ‘likeability’.

Likeability is a subjective term: no-one is likeable to everyone all of the time (apart from Aaron Sorkin, perhaps…)

The local pub philosopher interjected with “Likeability is, in reality, an absolute term referring to multiple concepts.” Aristotle, he advised (after being asked in words not quite polite enough to transcribe here, to please explain further), would refer us to the Golden Mean (that is, he explains upon another good prodding, that there is no algorithm for likeability, what is likeable in one situation is not so in another).

Someone who can dilute tension and divert attention when a playful pub discussion becomes uncomfortable has the likeability factor (about whether Corbyn is likeable because he has integrity, for example) in that moment. However that same person is not so likeable when applying that likeability factor to a boardroom meeting about impending decisions regarding redundancy offers.

“There is no such thing as a likeability factor,” asserts the philosopher.

Nobody, apart from me, because I’m a sucker for Aristotle, seems to agree.

Later, upon returning home to my bookcases, I rediscover that, Rohit Bhargava, author of Likeonomics: The Unexpected Truth behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behaviour and Inspiring Action, affirms that there is a real “ROI to likeability.”

This makes me think harder about the definition.

Bhargava distinguishes between ‘nice’ people and ‘likeable people’. ‘Likeable’ people, he categorises as having the capacity for honesty, whereas ‘nice’ people may avoid being candid for fear of not being liked or hurting others’ feelings. He also identifies unselfishness as a key likeability characteristic.

Jed, then is very likeable, I conclude, smugly…

Honesty and selflessness key likeability factors, according to marketer, author, speaker, professor and nice guy, Rohit Bhargava.

I discover many more likeability factors defined by other authors and experts, a great overview of which is covered by Psychology Today’s expert Ray Williams in his article Why Leaders Need to Be Likeable Rather Than Dominating.  Factors explored include sincerity, the capacity for understanding, loyalty and trustworthiness, intelligence, sense of humour, warmth, kindness, open expressiveness, the use of light physical touch, focusing the conversation on the other person, humility and disclosure of vulnerability, such as past mistakes.  

I want to binge on all seven box sets of The West Wing series and test my Jed hypothesis against this growing list of likeable attributes.

Williams’ concluding paragraph, thankfully, sums up my thoughts in a previous blog about there being no such thing as a great leader (only great leadership teams), whilst aligning them perfectly to my thoughts upon leaving the pub.

And so, I am able retire to bed, box set binge-free, although Williams’ final words do fuel my dream.

His words:

“Expanding our concept of leadership to require that leaders possess greater social skills and practice them in organizations that embrace trust, honesty, compassion, generosity, empathy, kindness and genuine concern for the welfare of others would be welcome change.”

My dream:

The world is ready for leaders that can do this; leaders that have the leadership edge, leaders like President Bartlet. Indeed, if more leaders were like Jed, the world would be a safer place. Jed-style leaders, where are you? It’s time to step up and bring clarity to our increasingly fragile world …

Professional Academy offer a range of Management & Leadership Training as both bespoke in-company training with the option of accredited CMI qualification pathways and management & leadership qualifications for individuals looking to progress in their management career. Why not contact us today to see if we can help you with your personal development as a manager and a leader?


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