Demanding Leaders are Much More Effective - and More Likable

Leadership likability has many meanings. And the implications go much deeper than whether a leader has lots of “Like” button clicks.

Zenger Folkman’s research shows that leaders who score high on the Likability Index are also rated as being highly effective leaders by their direct reports, peers, manager, and others. These ratings correlate to sharply higher employee satisfaction and engagement, sales, customer service, safety, productivity, quality, and profitability.

In their latest Harvard Business Review blog post, I’m the Boss? Why Should I Care if You Like Me?, Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman refute the common misconception that leaders can be highly effective without being likable. One of their studies involving 51,836 leaders showed that does happen – but only in 1 out of 2,000 cases! Those odds are hard to like! Jack and Joe also outline seven key steps for leaders to substantially increase their likability.

ZF’s Likability Index goes beyond an engaging personality and strong interpersonal skills. It also includes attributes such as integrity, problem solving, inspiring and motivating others, and honesty. Click here to see the complete list and take a self-assessment of your personal likability.

A second set of misconceptions has emerged from this discussion; demanding leaders are less likable – especially if they’re women. This point was raised recently in blog post by Marianne Cooper a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She was the lead researcher for the book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg and declared that “success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”

To look deeper at this issue Zenger Folkman studied this question in their database of 360 assessments on over 50,000 leaders. This data is based on an average of 13 raters (mangers, peers, direct reports and others) for each leader. The evaluations aren’t abstract constructs but rather real people that the raters know well and work with every day.

For this study ZF’s “Demanding Index” included these items:

  • Establishes high standards of excellence for the work group.
  • Is skillful at getting people to stretch for goals that go beyond what they originally thought possible.
  • Keeps people focused on the highest priority goals and objectives.
  • Does everything possible to achieve goals.
  • Creates an atmosphere of continual improvement in which self and others push to exceed the expected results.

Many people would expect to see that the more demanding a leader is the less likable he or she might be. The findings clearly refute that misconception. The graph below shows that demanding leadership has an almost perfect correlation to likability. And there’s virtually no variability between men and women.

Impact on Likability of Being Demanding

Like quality, service, or excellence, likability and demanding are often in the eye of the beholder. How we define those terms has a big impact on our conclusions. If demanding means “pushes too hard,” “manipulative,” “overly aggressive,” or even “bullying” then likability – and effectiveness – will likely plummet.

The data show that extraordinary leaders produce outstanding results through being both highly demanding and highly likable. You’ve got to like those findings.