Comment: Don't be an asshole

Nic Haralambous discusses how to improve leadership by building a strong vision and letting go of the need to be liked.

Nic Haralambous is a business coach, consultant and host of the It's Not Over podcast, where he chats to business owners about their stories of success, survival and failure.

There's an inherently false dichotomy in trying to figure out if you would prefer to be liked or be successful. As a leader, sometimes it feels like those are the only options available to you. I get it. You make one decision and certain people in your organization become disgruntled. You make a different decision and your clients show signs of dissatisfaction. Wherever you turn, it seems like you have to choose between the two. 

For a long time, I believed that the best ​​entrepreneurs in the world were complete assholes and didn't care about being liked at all. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is a prime example. He was (allegedly) a notorious bastard at work: obsessive, aggressive, intense, focused and overly forceful with his opinions. He was not well-liked, but he was sure as hell respected and successful. 

I believe that society incorrectly places people like Steve Jobs and his ilk on a pedestal. I call these leaders the ‘asshole entrepreneurs’. These are once-in-a-generation humans who change the shape of the world and, as such, believe they can ignore social conventions and derive very little of their self-worth from being liked. In fact, you could argue that they find joy in people actively disliking them – but that's an entirely separate issue. These people aren't the rule, but the exception – yet we feel they're the embodiment of what a leader should be.

Being liked, being respected and being successful aren't mutually exclusive. What counts, ultimately, is the balance of your vision, your values and how you treat people. Your vision is important because it lays out the future you're trying to build. It helps your team work towards a common goal. Your vision, combined with your values, shows your team what kind of leader you are. If your vision is to be the most loved leader who ever existed then I have some unfortunate news: you're not building a business, you're building an entourage. 

The social currency of being liked is useful in business to a point. It helps leaders engage teams, maintain a good company culture and drive positive energy throughout the company. However, being liked on its own won't get you through difficult times. Being liked won't help you make the tough decisions in your darkest days. Being liked won't help you fire the bad apples or retrench staff. Being liked will often make those things more difficult because people will feel betrayed and misled. Being a leader who derives personal value and self-worth through the adoration of a team is a minefield that will eventually blow you up.

That's not to say you have to be hated either. If you are the Jobs-esque asshole leader, it's unlikely that your team will stick with you through the tough times – the late nights, the intense deadlines and the hard decisions. This is the leadership riddle that we all need to solve for ourselves. Unfortunately, there's no single solution, because it's different for every leader in every business.

So, the question I want to ask you is this: is your number-one goal to build a sustainable, profitable business or to be liked? If you only want to be liked, then you probably shouldn't be in a leadership position, because leaders have to make decisions that are often difficult and uncomfortable in the short term. If you're obsessed with being liked, then those decisions become short-sighted and only serve to give you a temporary bump in social currency with your team. 

Most people want a firm but fair leader who thinks about long-term success. They want to be heard when they speak and they want to see positive change with consistent action. Most people don't need to like their leaders, but end up liking the great ones anyway. 

Leaders need to obsess about their long-term vision because that's what people join a company to build – a vision bigger than themselves. I believe people are able to respect a leader they don't like, but I don't think that people can like a leader they don't respect. 

To earn respect, leaders need to be consistent in their actions, work towards a unified vision that the team has bought into and treat everyone as they wish to be treated. It feels like a cliché, but leaders who are universally respected are authentically themselves, transparent about what they want and honest as often as possible. These are the traits that I strive for when I lead a team and these are the traits that I respect in leaders I've worked with in the past. 

Think about the leaders you have known, the ones you respect the most, and consider their most prominent traits. Almost certainly, the ones you remember are the ones who pushed you to be the best version of yourself, build the best business possible and were firm but fair in their pursuit of success.

This article was first published in Courier issue 48, August/September 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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