Let me start this blog by clarifying that I think you can be a good leader and be likable as well. I don’t think a good leader has to be someone who simply commands respect and charges forward; head down, furrowed brow, elbows out. In fact, I think that kind of a posture is probably indicative of a leader (dynamic or not) who has a short shelf-life. I think you can be a kind and likable person and a solid, visionary, shepherd-leader at the same time.
That being said…
There is a certain aspect of leadership that I think leaders sometimes neglect to recognize. I know I have seen this in myself at times over the years, and I’m sure it is in many other leaders as well.
There is a dangerous temptation that every leader faces. It is the temptation to lose sight of three very important things: 1) the end-goal, 2) those you’re leading, and 3) what it takes to get them there. As human beings our vision of these three things can get obscured by one dirty little factor: we all want to be liked.
I don’t know when you first noticed this about yourself, but there comes a point in every one of our lives when we realize that the opinions of other people matter to us. And they often matter more than they should. Even for those with a “tough exterior,” who don’t mind playing the jerk, other people’s opinions still matter. As much as we may want to ignore it, the feeling is real, and the feeling is mutual.
The difficultly comes when we are put in a position where we need to make decisions that affect other people. This is leadership. If you play a role on a team or in an organization where you have oversight of other people and you are charged with making decisions that affect their lives, you are functioning in a leadership capacity.
All leadership isn’t good leadership. Good leadership is marked by a resolve to make (and follow-through) with the decisions necessary to lead the organization forward. Great leadership is exhibited when tough decisions are made with wisdom and determination, particularly in the face of resistance.
Unfortunately, tough decisions are tough based upon the fact that the people they influence don’t always prefer the outcome. It is at this point that every single leader faces the temptation to lead or be liked.
It’s a fork in the road.
Turn right and you’ll lead.
Turn left and you’ll be liked.
You have to choose. Lead or be liked.
The crossroads between leading and being liked is the place upon which all leadership pivots. You are defined as a leader by what you do when you come to this intersection. Leaders who simply maintain the status quo most often turn left. They take a poll, read the room, and base their decisions on what is going to receive the least amount of push-back.
Leaders who change the world almost always turn right. They’re not lone-rangers. They seek wisdom from those around them, weigh the decision carefully in thought and prayer, and make informed decisions. But when they turn right, they keep going. Great leaders expect push-back, and when they receive it they take it in stride. They know resistance comes with the territory, and that friction and heat are the result of movement and energy.
It is easier to focus on being liked than to be driven by the conviction to lead.
It is easier to “keep the peace” than it is to make tough decisions and stick by them.
Jim Collins defines the characteristic resolve that is present in next-level leaders in his book Good to Great:
Level 5 leadership…is about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great…Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce results. They will sell the mills or fire their brother, if that’s what it takes to make the company great.
Implicit in this understanding of leadership is the reality that when you sell the mills or fire your brother, it may not always be the most popular decision. Every time you fire your brother, you have to face moment when you see your sister-in-law for the first time.
True leaders aren’t swayed by popular opinion, they’re driven by a resolve to position the team, organization, company, church, or entity that they are leading to reach its fullest potential.
I doubt leadership has ever been easy. But in the technological climate we currently inhabit, with peanut-gallery experts shouting their opinions in a news feed near you, it takes massive resolve. But the principles remain the same. Every leader who makes a lasting impact on their world must stay focused on the destination they’re headed to, those they’re called to lead, and what it is going to take to get them there.
 Collins, Good to Great, p. 30.