As A CEO, Does Being Liked Really Matter?

"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody." - Bill Cosby

Should CEOs be nice? Should their people like them -- not just respect them, trust their skill, or follow their leadership -- but actually like them? Here's what I know: Being liked is better than not being liked, all things considered! It's not essential, but it can be an advantage.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Business history is full of CEOs who achieved great levels of success while being miserable human beings. Steve Jobs instantly comes to mind. He was spiteful, intimidating, ruthless and unforgiving. He was -- for all of his innovation and accomplishment -- a mean individual. In one case, he called the team behind MobileMe (a dud) to the carpet, berating them for a half-hour before firing the leader in front of everyone.

Yet, people followed Jobs. They stepped up their game and created better products -- it's because they were afraid not to.

On the other hand, consider a CEO like Dan Porter. He's the force behind OMGPOP, which created the mobile app Draw Something. Before the game was released, Porter was forced to lay off several workers. Subsequently, 35 million or so people decided to download Draw Something, and Zynga acquired it for $210 million.

Before the deal closed, Porter worked feverishly to rehire the laid-off employees so they could benefit from the sale. He didn't have to -- he could have pocketed the extra money -- but he chose to be considerate. I wonder if Steve Jobs would have done the same.

Likeability and Leadership

People follow great leaders because they have vision. These CEOs are able to talk to their employees, rally the troops and get them to buy into their vision. Not because they're likeable, but because they demonstrate core values -- fairness, integrity, accountability, competency -- and set the example for everyone else in the company.

Likeability is a whole different issue, but one that's not at all incompatible with effective leadership. All things being equal, being liked has an advantage that being disliked does not. What do likeable leaders tend to have in common?

  • Empathy - They are able to think of others. Again, both Jobs and Porter are excellent, and polar, examples. The ability to see past oneself and consider the feelings and situations of others is a key differentiator of a likeable leader.
  • Sense of humor - This one isn't a hard and fast requirement, but everyone appreciates appropriate, well-timed humor. Leaders can diffuse difficult situations, boost morale or simply add a little levity to the day.
  • Respect - When leaders respect their employees, associates, vendors, suppliers, shareholders and community members, it comes across in every interaction. People feel valued, and when they do, they're more likely to contribute their A-games.
  • Humble - It is easy, perhaps, for CEOs to fall into a trap of thinking very highly of themselves. When they can balance confidence with modesty, it's much easier to like them as people and respect them as leaders.
  • Authentic - These CEOs do not try to be anyone who they are not. They're not trying to please everyone, as Bill Cosby says. They're just trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

If CEOs have these qualities, they are going to be likeable people -- regardless of how well they do their jobs. Leadership, on the other hand, is demonstrating and living those core values and creating buy-in for the vision. Ideally, leaders can blend these characteristics to become that much more effective.

Leaders don't have to be liked to succeed -- but it sure doesn't hurt if they are.