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Kristine Maudal & Even Fossen (Brainwells) Headshot

Being a Good Leader Is Not a Popularity Contest

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The corporate world is changing. Again. And the requirements for how to be a good leader are also changing. Again.

Many of the leaders we meet struggle to define their role when navigating in this new and unknown territory, and too often end up into one of two pitfalls. They either 1) choose an autocratic leadership style focusing primarily on results and performance, but fail to create a thriving work environment, or 2) become a leader who is looked upon and behave as a "comrade" to his or her team-mates, failing to achieve necessary respect or not daring to make unpopular decisions.

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The latter style is well-known in many Scandinavian organizations due to the flat hierarchies where every voice counts. But it is also quite common in start-ups and smaller companies in other parts of the world. For many, both leaders and employees, leadership performed by 'being one of the team' might seem like a preferred style of leading. In today's more people oriented approach to leading, this can even feel quite relevant.

The importance of a thriving and purpose driven work environment is covered in detail in modern management literature, and the negative consequences of not having it reported in numerous studies. Therefore, many young leaders acknowledge that a happy working life is what matters most these days.

It is easy to conclude that a culture where everybody agree and act in harmony all the time, is what work best. Consequently it is also easy to think that as a leader, the most important feature is to behave in a way that everyone like.

But there is a flip side to this, what we see is that leadership behavior connected to likeability and popularity usually results in problems taking critical decisions and staying with them. Especially if the leader know this will upset some or many in the organization.

This is a problem because we all need leaders we can respect, more than leaders we like. We need leaders we can trust to take the necessary decisions, based on relevant input. Some think that to be trusted one must be liked by everyone. This is a paradox, since we tend to mix "trust" and "like". As human beings we can quite well trust someone even though we do not like them. The opposite is more problematic; if we do not trust somebody, it is hard to like him or her.

Also -- we can look at popularity from two angles. One is the superficial shortsighted popularity, which often is about liking, coolness, and external factors. The other is deeper and more long-term oriented, built upon factors like respect, trust, and knowledge.

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Today -- excellent leadership is a solid mix of traditional leadership skills and modern ways of leading. The need for pointing out the direction, set the strategy, and clearly communicate this throughout the organization is important, while simultaneously focus on the human side of strategy and how to release the collaborative potential. Being process-oriented, and knowing how to involve the right people at the right time is imperative, and fulfills most employees need to be included, contribute, and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

Maybe leadership is a popularity contest after all? It just needs to be measured by the right parameters.

So, what to do if you are a leader in today's changing corporate world?

Know your processes. Getting the processes right is maybe the most valuable thing you can do for securing your success. Good processes are repeatable and make sure that the content processed is taken care of in a good way. For instance - a solid and communicated decision process will make it easier to move forward. Way too much time is spent on discussing issues that already have been decided upon. Everyone should know when it's time for input, who will take the decision, and when will it be taken. Then move on. If the process does not work, fix it.

Communicate. When you spend a lot of time thinking about something, it is easy to assume that everyone else do the same. They don't. Make sure to communicate a decision and give the reason and background for it. Be open and honest! Our experience is that people accept most decisions if they feel they have been given the reason and honest explanation behind the decision. Also if they do not agree.

Manage your expectations. Being too much of a friend with the ones you work with often make it hard to let them know what you expect. Friendship is ok, as long as you know your way around. You need to let your subordinates and teammates know what you expect from them. Actually it is easier for everyone when you are clear on this.

What do you think? Any experience and thoughts on this topic are welcome! Remember - together we are a well of knowledge.