Wednesday, 20 April 2011

“If I’d wanted to be popular, I’d have joined a boy band.”

So went the saying that was used with abandon by so-called people managers during my former career.  Statements like that and the other usual one-liners such as, “I’m not here to be popular” or “I’m not here to make friends.”

But what are they really saying each time they say these things?  That they’re ‘professional’.   That they’re tough?  That they’re fair?

It has been said that there’s no lonelier place than that occupied by the leader.  Because sometimes, leaders have to be brave, give bad news and make tough decisions.  They have to be able to have those courageous conversations; so, in order to protect themselves; some feel it necessary to give a prior warning or a constant reminder of their position of authority; that they are not here to make friends or to be popular.  That they are here to do a job and sometimes doing the job means that sacrifices have to be made – and that those sacrifices can be human (not in the literal sense of course!).

But for me this whole thing is unnatural when it comes to effective or authentic leadership.  And this is why:

In his critically acclaimed book ‘Motivation and Personality’, Abraham Maslow produced his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ pyramid which provides a straightforward pictorial theory of what Maslow considered to be the layers of basic human need.  Each layer of need must be fulfilled before the individual can advance to the next level.  Maslow’s model is shown below:

At the third level, Maslow identified that we all desire a sense of belonging.  That we possess a need to be identified as a member of something.  Be that a family, a circle of friends, an association, a club, a boy band even!   

One only needs to witness a major sporting event to see this principle in action.  Spectators or fans will adorn themselves with their team colours to affirm their belonging to one and all.  The camaraderie that goes with being a loyal supporter, the singing and chanting of club songs that they’ve all learned, the shared ecstasy of victory and the crushing depression of defeat that only a fellow supporter would understand.  Humans are social animals after all.  So why would someone who has accepted the responsibility of leadership appear to go out of their way to distance themselves from the rest of the pack – the very pack of which they are the leader?  Doesn’t this go against Maslow’s theory?  And more importantly; can an unpopular leader - lead effectively if at all?

Maslow’s fourth level is ‘Esteem’.  Having accomplished the previous level of ‘Belonging’ Maslow said that in order for the individual to meet their esteem needs they must believe that they have secured the respect of others.  Furthermore, the individual must also have developed a strong sense of self belief and have their esteem-needs have been met by recognition of their own accomplishments.  Whilst it is arguable that the individual concerned may genuinely feel that they have ‘arrived’ by virtue of the fact that they are in-charge of others, how does this measure up to what we know of emotional intelligence?  To be truly emotionally intelligent the individual must be aware of the impact of their own behaviour on the people that they are leading in addition to the impression they leave on their peers.  For someone to consider it appropriate to say “I’m not here to be popular”, must recognise the negative effect of such a statement and in turn, be aware of that negative impression they have made.  If not then they are by definition, emotionally unintelligent.

To conclude, it is my belief that those making bravado-statements regarding their lack of care toward their own popularity are kidding themselves.  Despite the external persona these people may wish to display, there’s no getting away from the fact that all leaders like to be liked; especially by those whom they lead.  Every people manager wishes to consider themselves to be a good leader.  And all good leaders are popular with their followers. For followers will only follow people to whom they are attracted and who they believe will look out for them.   

So carefree nonsense statements about popularity are merely a mask to either hide under confidence in their own ability to lead or  to give the impression that they are strong and courageous leaders who will take no prisoners in order to achieve the task.  The worse case scenario is that they think that they are leading when in reality, they aren’t really leading at all.  For what they are saying and displaying are the polar opposite characteristics of what makes a good leader.

I would sincerely appreciate your thoughts.

Wishing you well in all that you do,


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