Is Leadership a Popularity Contest?

Popularity Contest

Greetings Leaders!

There has been a lot in the news lately about President Obama and his declining popularity ratings. In California, according to the LA Times, Governor Schwarzenegger has the approval rating of only 27% of the people. If you turn to Congress, it is faring no better with the Washington Post reporting just a 29% approval rating. How about Corporate America? According to Reuters, 88% of the respondents said that their reputation was either “not good” or “terrible”.

So what gives? Is leadership a popularity contest?

Fair Weather Friends?

As a leader, you cannot make your decisions based on popularity. You must base them on what you think will be the best choice for your organization. If you have been in any leadership position for even a short period, you know that sometimes you must do things that are deemed not popular.

One of the greatest weaknesses a leader can have is to make decisions based on people liking him or her. You’ve seen the results countless times. The poor performer who is never disciplined and is never let go. The continuous changing of strategic direction as the leader tries to please everyone. The lack of clarity that is brought about by indecision and a lack of standards that the leader will hold people accountable to.

Making decisions based on popularity is definitely something a leader should not be doing.

Having said all that, what about people at other levels of the organization? A leader usually has a boss and peers. CEOs have Boards to which they report. What about customers and the public? Does a leader base decisions on being popular with people at these levels in the organization?

The answer is that it depends. If a leader continuously  ignores the opinions or the well-being of others, this can lead to a loss of power.  A leader who continuously makes unpopular decisions will find it difficult to get things done over the long-term because people will become alienated. Consideration must be given to working with other leaders at all levels to ensure that they will support you when needed. This means that a leader must understand when to stand fast, or when to give in.

Principled Leadership Lasts

To succeed as a leader, it is vital that you spend some time developing a framework that will help you make decisions. While you do not want to base your decisions on being popular, you must make sure that you don’t alienate people whose support you need. To help you decide this framework, consider making a Credo Statement that will outline what is important to you. You can list things that are non-negotiable, while leaving some things in the intangible area. Things that should be non-negotiable are ethics, values, strategic direction and honesty. You might try creating a decision tree on which to base your future decisions. It will bring clarity and a reliable process to help you stay on track.

It will also communicate to others that you are reliable and consistent.

Getting back to the numbers that were introduced earlier… our country is in trouble. It is readily apparent that people are getting to the point where they will no longer support the status quo. Our government and corporate leaders need to start listening to the middle class, or they will find themselves facing a political revolution. This also holds true for organizations who get off track, so be mindful of your environment and make the best choices you possibly can.

Your career, your company, or your country are depending on you!

What are you doing to ensure that you are you are leading with honor and integrity and not simply trying to win a popularity contest? Where have you failed in this arena in the past by going for the quick and easy and not the way of character? How has your leadership affected others in the long term when you took the high road? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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John Ikeda is Prinicple Consultant at Honorable Leadership.
He can be reached at

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