Likability vs. Leadership: Which is Better for Business?


Sometimes, being a good leader means doing things that employees and even you might not like and that might make you a bit less popular, or even hated, around the office.  In fact, some of the most successful CEOs in history have been pretty hard to work with (think Steve Jobs).  Yet, even though leaders don’t have to be nice to get the job done, being a likable, approachable manager can be a pretty great asset, as it can motivate and encourage employees to be loyal and hardworking.  But which trait is better to emphasize in the long run?  Here, we analyze the pros and cons of each and provide some guidance for managers and leaders of all kinds on the most effective strategies for getting more out of those you lead and improving the bottom line of your business.

Likability vs. Leadership: A Definition

Before delving into which is a better strategy for business, it’s important to first define just what we mean by likability and leadership.  Here, you’ll find some of the qualities that are essential to each, letting you get a better understanding of just what each means.


What makes someone likable?  Generally, we find people likable when they exhibit friendliness, empathy, kindness and a good sense of humor, or are just honest, genuine people.  Managers who are likable are often open and easy to talk to, warm, positive, respectful of employees, humble and are good listeners.  While likability can occur in a professional setting, it’s a highly personal matter.  It is often difficult for managers to take a stance that makes them likable to all of those whom they’re leading.


While leadership and likability can overlap (both require good communication and a fair amount of humility), there are some distinct qualities that set good leadership apart from likability.  People who are good leaders may be likable, but more importantly, they are competent, knowledgeable, proactive, fair, decisive and committed to their jobs.  Managers who exhibit good leadership place greater value on achieving a vision for the company than on ensuring that all employees like them on a personal level.

Why Likability Isn’t the Defining Feature of a Good Leader

Can a good leader also be likable?  Absolutely, but likability isn’t essential for establishing good leadership or for boosting the bottom line of your business.  In fact, a recent study found that while being liked by subordinates doesn’t hurt business, it doesn’t really help it either.  What does?  Being seen as a competent, responsible leader.  What’s more, likability is an extremely subjective trait and it’s nearly impossible, as in all social relationships, for a leader to get everyone to feel equally positive about him or her in the office setting.

Effective leadership in its purest form is based on achieving a set vision (whether meeting a deadline or making a certain number of sales) rather than having a nice personality that appeals to others in the workplace.  Making difficult decisions that favor the long-term goals of the business over the immediate affection of employees may not make a leader popular, but it will help improve business and may build trust and respect in the long haul, which can be just as valuable, or more so, than being liked.  It simply isn’t possible, or perhaps even desirable, to make likability the defining trait of a good, effective leader.

Why Good Leaders Can’t Ignore Likability

Likability may not be an essential quality for leaders to have, but no leader, no matter how great his or her leadership abilities may be, can completely ignore the power of likability in the workplace.  You may not have to be liked to be a good leader, but the reality is that it can actually help you achieve your professional and business goals with less resistance and more enthusiasm from employees who feel valued, listened to and respected.  In fact, some have even suggested that likability can play a major role in business growth and success, as people are more likely to do business and stick with someone they find personable and employees are more willing to work hard for a boss they like.

So where do you go from there?  Here are some ideas on how to blend the two aspects, both equally important indicators of success, to become a better, smarter business leader.

Becoming a Likable Leader

There are actually many links between good leadership and likability, and you can capitalize on them to get more out of those you work with and to become a more productive, cohesive team.  Practice these to become a leader that employees not only respect, but also like.

  • Speak less, listen more.

Good leaders and likable people have one big trait in common: they’re great communicators.  Whether you’re trying to become a better leader or just trying to get on your subordinates’ good sides, improving how you communicate with them can do wonders.  A key place to start?  Focus on listening to what employees are saying rather than speaking out on your own.  You may learn important things about the way your business is operating, get to know those you work with better and discover strengths and weaknesses in your operations that can be key to improving productivity and success.

  • Be honest.

No one wants to work with someone they feel is dishonest or isn’t telling them the whole truth.  While there may be things you need to keep to yourself, there are also times when it’s critical to be honest about the importance of projects, the failings of the business, or an employee’s own performance.  Honesty and openness can cause some hurt feelings, but it generally results in employees feeling like they are more trusted and valued members of the team.

  • Show appreciation.

Too often, leaders focus on telling others what they’re doing wrong rather than what they’re doing right.  While you do want to push your employees to excel, often it can be more effective to highlight what they’re doing right than what they’re doing wrong.  A little appreciation goes a long way and will not only make you more likable, but also a better leader.

While you’re looking out for the success of your business, it’s fine to be likable and personable with your employees; just make sure that the focus of your efforts is never on those things, but instead on leadership, teamwork and results.  At the end of the day, your job isn’t to build a team of people who are committed to you, but who are committed to completing a task and making the business successful.  If being likable to some degree makes that task easier to complete, then it’s in your best interest to blend qualities of leadership and likability into your management strategy.

The Bottom Line

You don’t have to be best friends with all of your employees to be a good leader, but you do have to be liked, at least to a certain degree, in order to get the most out of those you work with.  You don’t want to sacrifice corporate culture and drive away the best employees (who may depart for a less hostile employer) for the bottom line, but you also don’t want to create an environment where personal relationships trump professional ones.  Being at either extreme when it comes to being a manager, like most things in life, isn’t the most effective way to get things done.

At the end of the day, you’ll be most effective at creating a successful, thriving business and a good corporate culture by creating a culture of accountability and by defining your vision as a leader.  Getting your employees to respect that (and you) and buy into whatever vision you have for the business is your ultimate goal, but within that there is room to create strong, positive relationships with employees.  The bottom line: focus on leadership, but don’t forget that achieving leadership goals is often much easier in a happier, friendlier workplace that fosters mutual respect, not fear.

Reprinted by permission.

About the author: OnlineMBA

OnlineMBA.com is dedicated to helping students, prospective students and recent graduates develop into influential and innovative business leaders by providing tips, articles, tools and conversation about the business world, MBA programs, the college experience, online degrees and a lot more.

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