“Your people will decide if you are a leader.” Some version of this quote appears from time to time attributed to various people who would have us believe that leaders must please their team to be a real leader. They believe a leader is not really a true leader until their team accepts them as such. Here’s why that belief is wrong and can take a leader down the wrong path.
First, let’s define our terms. A leader is simply someone who gets things done through other people. There are formal leaders and informal leaders. Informal leaders are team members who don’t have a formal leadership position but exhibit leadership. Formal leaders are those who have been assigned to a position of leadership, and the responsibility that goes with it. Anyone who is tasked with accountability for a team’s actions is a formal leader.
So, if you are placed in a position of responsibility, usually with a title of supervisor or manager, you have a leadership responsibility. Whoever appointed you to that position has decided you are a leader, whether your team likes you or not. The question is not, are you a leader; but rather, are you a good leader? Leadership is not a popularity contest and leaders cannot wait for the team to decide whether they accept a leader.
I was assigned to lead a team of about 100 people. External appearances indicated the team was doing well, but there were some serious underlying issues which were affecting their performance and which would cause bigger problems if not addressed. I was tasked with fixing those issues and I can assure you the team did not accept me for quite some time. Had I relied on popularity or team acceptance as a measurement of success, I would have failed in my leadership responsibility and the team would have continued down the wrong path.
Over time, the team began to accept me and we eventually developed a good relationship which made my leadership responsibilities easier. I accomplished what I was assigned to do, my boss was happy, and the team became much more effective. Had I waited for the team to accept me before taking steps to help them get back on track, I would not have been successful and probably would not have been in that position for long. My boss had made that pretty clear.
I watched as a peer took the opposite approach with a large team. He failed to enforce standards or make difficult decisions that would affect his popularity. While he was well liked he was not a good leader and his leadership failure resulted in several serious mishaps.
Leadership is not a popularity contest and leaders must not wait to be accepted by the team. Good leaders understand they are accountable for their teams and they make the tough decisions.