Let me begin by saying ALL the best leaders I have worked for were popular. Popular in so much as…I liked working for them. They were personable, I wanted to be around them, and they got the best out of me.
The Australian military's definition of leadership: 'Leadership is the art of positively influencing a group towards a common goal'. Have you ever been positively influenced by someone unpopular?
What about the overarching aim of a leader? It has been said (by me!), that the role of a leader is to 'create and sustain an exceptional operating environment'. By exceptional, I mean an operating environment which gets the very best from the team, both as individuals, and through synergy. Is this possible with someone unpopular?
Recall that as a boss, we have three distinct roles; the 'Three Hats' analogy. Sometimes we wear a ‘command hat’ (power), at other times a ‘management hat’ (science) and finally a ‘leadership hat’ (art). We occasionally have to make unpopular decisions. But if we put on our leadership hat when doing so, the decision will be accepted and the damage on the team's morale can be minimized.
Let’s say our business is struggling. With our command hat on, we make the difficult decision to change strategy.
With our management hat on, we calculate that we are overmanned, and that redundancies are simply unavoidable.
Then with our leadership hat on, we ensure we hide nothing from our team, and spend time explaining the situation openly and honestly, both leading up to and during the restructuring.
We make sure the unfortunate team members are in absolutely no doubt that the organization valued their contribution, and we offer genuine support to them during and after the departure process. We promise, authentically, to re-employ them in the future if at all possible.
Good leaders are popular, because they are empathetic. Good leaders are popular because they get the best out of us. And good leaders are popular because they sacrifice for us.
But sometimes popular leaders need to make unpopular decisions.