During the last few months I have been paying close attention to a couple of our relatively new academic leaders. They are making bold changes, saying “We aren’t doing that” to people who aren’t used to hearing “No,” and holding some challenging actors accountable for their behavior. More fascinating than what is happening is what is not happening. While I would normally expect protesting or at least serious kvetching, all has been surprisingly quiet on the organizational-change front. To my great surprise, and I expect theirs, the new leaders actually seem to be winning people over.
I have been taking copious mental notes on the strategies these leaders are employing, and over the weekend I shared them with a friend who fancies himself a serious change agent. When I noted how impressed I was that so much change was occurring without the normal drama that tends to accompany such shifts, my friend commented, “Leaders can be liked or respected, but not both. If no one is pushing back, they clearly aren’t pushing hard enough.”
I have never been a fan of the “Would you rather be liked or respected?” question or its cousin, “Would you rather be liked or would you like to get something done?” I think these questions create a false dichotomy, and I don’t believe we have to choose one or the other. In fact, I’d argue we shouldn’t.
Leaders who see value in being both liked and effective appreciate the importance of helping others see the need for change, attending to individual and group dynamics, honoring cultural traditions, and creating optimism about the future rather than fear of what might happen if others don’t go along. Importantly, the most successful leaders appreciate the value of creating a reservoir of goodwill, building solid relationships, and proving they are worth following. These individuals appreciate the limitations of going solo and tend to get a lot done because of, not despite, the trust-based relationships they have established.
As you reflect upon your role—be it faculty member, researcher, project coordinator, administrator, or something else—do you believe you have to make a choice between being liked or respected? If you’ve chosen one or the other, do you regret your decision? How have you observed others who have been willing to destroy a few relationships in order to get things done? Have you seen leaders who failed to make hard choices fearing that doing so would make them unpopular?