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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

How to be a Popular Leader

Every once in a while I need to challenge someone by asking, “Do you want to be liked or do you want to be effective?”

In one sense it’s a false choice, but in another, leaders often will have to make a choice about their function.

If the personal need to be liked, affirmed, or appreciated is the primary concern of the leader, effectiveness in the leader’s function in the system will be compromised.

For those who choose being popular over being effective, there are five sure ways to ensure success:


1. Focus on people’s needs over the need of the system.

Unpopular effective leaders will always seek the welfare of the system as a whole first over meeting the desires and predilections of individuals in the system.

Popular leaders, however, will keep their radars out and be sensitive about people’s needs, feelings, and predilections, and will focus on meeting those above all.

It’s the only way to keep everyone happy, right?


2. Structure your working relationships around triangles.

When dealing with persons in the system maintain a triangulated pattern of relationship by always asking and talking about others in the workplace, about their family, or another distracting issue.

This will serve to dissipate anxiety by focusing on things other than your direct relationship with persons.

People will feel better knowing they will never be called upon to take responsibility for their behavior or performance, nor have to deal with your position on issues.


3. Build cohesiveness in the system by focusing on the those who cry the loudest or on “others out there.”

If you focus on “them” you can avoid making persons in your system feel like failures because you’ll never require that they take responsibility for themselves.

If something goes wrong, blame “them.”

If goals aren’t met, blame “them.”

In fact, you can squash any ambitious idea and avoid potential failure by declaring that “they” will cause the plan to fail.

Alternatively, base your decisions on acquiescing to those who cry the loudest in the system.

By accomodating the system to the weakest you’ll never need to make people unhappy through challenge toward maturity and courage.


4. Take responsibility for other people’s functioning and for their feelings. 

There is nothing that will make you a more popular leader than doing this.

Take the blame or allow excuses for the underfunctioners and the incompetent in the system.

After all, “the buck” stops with you, right?

Effective leaders will only take responsibility for their own functioning and their own position in the system, but they forget that everyone loves a leader who “feels your pain.”


5. Finally, popular leaders will work hard at creating a sense of “family” or “togetherness” in the system by getting everyone to think alike, value the same things, share the same opinions and behave the same.

Effective leaders always work at fostering personal responsibility and discouraging “group think” or “herding.”

But that only leads to problems—it’s a whole lot easier to lead a herd of cattle than to deal with a system full of mature, self-directed, differentiated individuals who have the capacity to express their own ideas and opinions.


Sometimes leaders need to decide whether they want to be liked or whether they want to be effective.

Being a likeable leader isn’t too difficult, and everyone likes a “nice guy.”

Being an effective leader is never easy.

But effective leaders are clear about what constitutes true leadership and they have accepted that there’s often a price to pay when one answers that calling.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to its teaching and learning blogs.

Dr. G. & Friends