Sometimes You Need to Be Unpopular!

posted by Darren Mitchell February 19, 2015 0 comments

Going against the Herd

Earlier this week, a close colleague and I were engaged in an enthralling conversation around feedback that some Managers choose to provide their people. During the conversation, the topic of presenting came up, and we both shared stories of sitting in presentations where the presenter was horrible – they could not clearly articulate their message, they spent the majority of their time looking at, and reading from the PowerPoint slide deck on the screen rather than engaging their audience and they presented with little or no energy. And in terms of feedback, their Manager shared with them that they thought they had done a great job! This feedback was based more on what the Manager thought the presenter wanted to hear, rather than providing feedback that the presenter needed to hear in order to grow and develop. I then shared with my colleague that I have also been guilty of this; of providing feedback that I thought would make me popular and ‘liked’, rather than taking the responsibility to deliver robust and constructive feedback which could make a difference.

This conversation prompted me to take a closer look at the difference between Leaders who focussed on doing what is ‘popular’, and those Leaders who are prepared to do what is ‘unpopular’.

Often Leaders who focus on doing what is ‘popular’ are seeking to be ‘liked’ – they are what I call the ‘fair-weather’ Leader, they tend to be like a flag blowing randomly in the wind, changing direction as often as the wind changes. As a consequence, they can be very inconsistent, and through this inconsistency, can often lose credibility, support, confidence, and sometimes, ultimately their team. These leaders often have challenges conducting robust conversations, providing critical feedback, coaching their team around poor performance, driving accountability, and confronting their Leadership peers, Senior Leaders or customers. They can struggle with dismissing poor performers, restructuring the team, and especially saying ‘no’, as their focus is doing what is popular, not what needs to be done. Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, summed it up brilliantly when he said “Leadership is the art of saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes”. These Leaders often overlook the principle that being ‘liked’ as a Leader does not equate to being respected. As a Leader, when respect is lost, often leadership can default to management & very often management through compliance. As a result, the leader’s effectiveness can suffer, as well as the leader’s personal brand and reputation, not only within the team, but across the business.

One of the most overlooked, but most critical qualities of leadership is the Leaders’ courage and preparedness to do what is unpopular. These Leaders are members of the 3% Club, they ‘zig’ whilst the leadership herd (the other 97%!) is ‘zagging’, and they are prepared to do what is not fashionable, even if the action is against their personal interest. These leaders focus on putting their people first, they consider what is best for their people and their team, they are servant leaders, and are very strong in their convictions. Sometimes they find themselves in a position where a decision needs to be made, which on the surface, may not be understood by their people, or appear to be in the best interests of their people. However, the courageous Leader will make that unpopular decision, will maintain their integrity, remain authentic and transparent to their team, and will have the conviction to see the decision through to the end, understanding that, often, only at the end, will the team see the benefit. Making this decision and then following through, builds trust in the Leader.

If you are a Leader seeking to join the 3% Club, here are some thought provokers which may assist you in being prepared to make the unpopular decisions :

  • Establish a very clear set of Leadership Values. What do you stand for? What is important to you as a Leader? Get really clear on your values and commit to them.
  • Set high and clear expectations around performance. Ensure that these expectations are communicated and discussed with the team, so that all members of the team are crystal clear on what is expected of them. Then drive strong accountability, be understanding, empathetic but firm, and clearly articulate the consequences of non-delivery.
  • Be prepared to have the uncomfortable conversations. To earn entry to the 3% club, you must not avoid the robust and tough conversations, particularly around performance. Understand that not all decisions you make will be popular, however, if you remain true to your values, be relentlessly consistent on your expectations, maintain your integrity and courage, and focus on servant leadership (remember, it is not about you!), you will build respect and trust.
  • Identify, implement and demonstrate clear and high standards of excellence. Underpinned by your leadership values, ensure you have high standards of excellence which are maintained every minute of every day (for e.g. you will never conduct a ‘tough’ conversation with an individual in a team meeting – always do it privately). This will permeate through the team and you may notice that the team begins to lift their standards to a higher level, so that when you make an ‘unpopular’ decision, whilst the team make not agree with or understand the decision, they will respect the decision, because of the high standards you have set and maintained.
  • Be decisive and follow through. This is all about consistency. Understand that you will make decisions which are unpopular, but it is critical that you follow through on the decision and never ever compromise on your standards of excellence or your values.
  • Take responsibility and move forward. Great leaders take 100% responsibility for the decisions they make, as well as for the decisions their team makes. Sometimes you may end up making an unpopular decision which is also the wrong decision. When that happens, step forward and own it – in taking responsibility you now have the power to do something about it.

Are you a leader who likes to be liked, or are you a leader who is prepared to do what is unpopular, in order to allow your team and your people to grow and develop? Leadership is not a popularity contest. I believe leadership is an integrity contest – it is about earning and building respect. You will make unpopular decisions, but when you are able to earn and build respect amongst your people, they will be more likely to want to follow you, they will seek your guidance, your coaching and your counsel. And then? You will continue to grow your leadership muscle even more, and guess what? You may even become popular!!

I would love to hear about your experiences in making ‘unpopular’ decisions as a leader. What lessons have you learned that have assisted you in building your leadership muscle?

To your leadership success.


Thank you for taking the time to read this post – I greatly appreciate it, and welcome comments and feedback. Please feel free to comment below, to follow me on LinkedIn, or to connect via Twitter or Facebook.

About : Darren is an Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant, Trainer, Facilitator, Speaker. A  passionate and driven individual specialising in personal development, strategic planning, coaching for advocacy & enhanced performance, situational and servant based leadership, executive coaching of people leaders, emerging leaders and ‘high potential’ individual contributors within the Enterprise & Government market, personal change management, and strategic workshop facilitation & training.

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