Popularity and Leadership

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2008

Is leadership a popularity contest?

One of the most widely used methods for developing executives is the multi-rater feedback process commonly know as the 360 degree assessment. The theory is that the evaluations of your leadership effectiveness by the people who you work for, with and manage are valid indicators and predictors of your effectiveness as a leader. This information is also potentially useful in guiding your professional development.

One of my clients asked, “Isn’t a 360 nothing more than a popularity contest? Wouldn’t a tough but highly effective leader get low scores by anyone who was in the cross hairs of the executive being rated? Wouldn’t someone who pandered to people receive high scores, especially from those who would be most at risk if they were working for someone who demanded top performance and could care less what they think?”

There is some validity to that cynical view. A colleague of mine told me about working with an executive in a middle market company with several divisions and around 2,000 employees. My colleague worked with several of this company’s executives over a three-year period. In the process, he interviewed several dozen employees and executives. During that period he ran into one executive who everyone liked. He couldn’t find one person who had a bad thing to say about him. The common refrain was, “He is such a ‘nice guy’.” However, over time, my colleague kept hearing complaints, not about Mr. Nice Guy but, about two of the people who worked for him that were driving everyone else crazy. Those two employees (one was a mid-level exec and the other was an senior administrative assistant), acted like Prima Donnas. Other people would complain about them to each other and occasionally to Mr. Nice Guy who would always make excuses for them. After awhile, people just gave up and learned how to avoid or work around them. Not surprisingly, one of the cultural norms my colleague uncovered at this company was that in general, no one complained too loudly about anyone else.

Well, when the head of Mr. Nice Guy’s division left, someone who was a bit abrasive, Mr. Nice Guy was selected to replace him. As you can guess, when the CEO surveyed employees and other executives in that division, all he heard was great things about Mr. Nice Guy. Except from my client who warned the CEO about Mr. Nice Guy’s difficulty in dealing with his problem employees. Popularity won out. The CEO wanted to counteract the effects of Mr. Nice Guy’s predecessors. As you might also guess, a year later, the division barely met it’s goals, but the recent employee engagement survey found that employees really like working there. Never mind that an additional two key executives and my colleague’s client from that division left for more challenging and rewarding organizations.

This is a round about way of saying that you better ask the right questions when conducting 360 type surveys or when asking for input on hiring and promotion decisions. In a previous executive briefing, I cited research conducted by Zenger and Folkman from their book, The Extraordinary Leader. They analyzed the results of over 200,000 360-feedback surveys conducted on 20,000 different executives. They discovered that there is a set of five critical competencies that executives in the top 10% of pack embody: Character, domain or technical competency, focused on results, interpersonal effectiveness (not just nice) and leading organizational change (they are not caretaker managers).

I strongly recommend, therefore, that you ask questions that help you determine how competent your executive is in those five critical competencies and be wary of "Mr. Nice Guys" when making critical promotion decisions.

You need to ask questions such as:

  • How effective is the executive at setting clear goals and objectives?
  • How effective is she at holding people accountable for achieving those goals and objectives?
  • How well does she handle challenging personnel issues?
  • How effective is she at providing developmental guidance and support?
  • How effective is she at influencing people?
  • How effective is she at driving necessary change?
  • Do people respect her (not just like her)?
  • Is she someone that others trust?

Effective leadership is not a popularity contest. It’s about achieving results with integrity. I'll talk more about integrity in a future issue.

in•teg•ri•ty, n
The quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards. Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation.