10 Habits of Likable Leaders
Likability isn’t required in leadership, but it sure does help.
I’ve been studying and practicing leadership for 25 years. I was thrust into it as a young Marine recruit who found himself in charge of 75 other recruits. It was a trial-by-fire introduction but I soon learned to relish it.
Since then, I’ve run a business, led in corporate and government settings, and served as a volunteer baseball coach and Cubmaster for my son’s Pack.
I’ve seen leaders people didn’t like who got the job done. But the ones people did like got a lot more done in a more efficient way and everyone was a lot happier doing it.
In other words, likability is the icing on your leadership cake.
Here are a few ways I, science, and Einstein have found to be a likable boss.
1. They Like Others First
It’s really hard to like someone who doesn’t like you. Likable leaders like people first.
A scientific principle called the reciprocity of attraction proves exactly this point — people like people who like them.
It’s hard to like everyone as a leader. Some people are just abrasive. Some are just socially unaware or rude. So what? That makes them unique.
Some people have a good reason for being difficult. Maybe marriage problems at home or kids in trouble at school. A lot of things can make people seem less likable. But when you realize they have struggles you may never know about, your heart can soften towards them. This enables them to like you back.
Try to like everyone no matter how likable they are. You’ll find something to like in everyone eventually if you keep looking.
“It has been my experience that if we make the effort to listen to people when we meet them and work to get to know them a little, it is then easy to find something likable in practically anyone.” — Bryant H. McGill
2. They Display Warm Competence
When the people who work for you are judging you as a leader, the first things they look for are warmth and competence according to this study.
They look for warmth so they know the quality of your intentions for them. They look for competence to know whether you can deliver on those intentions.
I’ve always thought of these two things as components of the “happy warrior” concept. I define a happy warrior as someone who works hard and effectively, while keeping an air of can-do hope, optimism, and goodness around them despite circumstances.
It’s easy to follow a warm and competent “happy warrior.”
“Fight with a happy heart” — General James Mattis
3. They Are Authentic
When we are brave enough to drop the camouflage of conformity, we appear as we truly are — uniquely ourselves.
Most people are afraid to let themselves shine through. They’ve built a mask they think they need to get by socially. Most of us do this to some degree so it’s OK, but when we see someone brave enough to really be themself, it’s inspiring.
If someone’s immaturity or fear has them clinging to conformity, they may resent your boldness, but don’t let those wet blankets discourage you from being you.
Admitting when you are wrong is another way to be authentic. Those bosses who never admit fault simply aren’t authentic people. Acknowledging imperfection is a likable trait in a leader.
So be you. Even if not everyone likes it. Most people will. The people who matter will.
It’s better to be hated for who you are than loved for who you’re not.
So just be you and let the chips fall where they may — they fall favorably more often this way.
“This is the Law of Likability: The real you is the best you.”― Michelle Tillis Lederman
4. They Operate With Empathy
A boss who can’t walk in the shoes of those they lead will never be a great one.
Empathy is one of the most critical soft skills in leadership. When a leader doesn’t have it, they often can’t make wise decisions about strategy.
Like a mountain-climbing rope, empathy is the thin, yet strong bond that keeps the leader and their people on the same course. If that bond is broken then the boss and the team wander apart and can never reach the summit.
A boss should always be thinking about what they’d want a boss to do in any situation, then do that.
If a leader can always keep one foot in their follower’s shoes, they’ll always know which way their followers are heading, then can correct course if needed.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” — Oprah Winfrey
5. They Conduct Positive Emotion
A leader is like a symphony conductor of emotions and motivations. A leader always sets the emotional tone. A good leader sets a positive one.
Emotions are proven to be contagious, especially from leader to follower.
This is called emotional contagion and is defined as:
The phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.
Your followers will receive the emotions you project, internalize them, then reflect them. So choose wisely what you project.
The best leaders project hope, resolve, competence, enthusiasm, humility, truth, and even love.
6. They Instill Hope
The fires of failure and fear can be extinguished with hope.
A good boss always looks for the seedlings sprouting through the ashes, then waters them. I’ve never known any good leaders who wallow in despair.
They acknowledge difficulty or failure but meet both of them with hope and optimism.
Anything less than hope is a form of despair. And no one wants to follow a leader on that dark path.
“Leaders are dealers in hope.” ― Mark Miller, The Heart of Leadership
7. They Are Humble
You aren’t better than those you lead.
Without them, you could accomplish nothing. Remembering this puts a leader in the mindset of humility.
The best leaders project a confident humility.
Arrogance, the opposite of humility, is simply insecurity wearing bravado — not a good look on a leader.
“Humility, that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.” — Thomas Moore
8. They Ask, Listen, and Empathize
Likable leaders genuinely care about those they lead. They ask real, not pandering, questions and listen hard to the answer.
Think of the last time someone gave you their undivided attention — phone down — lips closed with no words ready to gush forth. Eyes fixed on you.
It’s a special occasion and so rare, especially today with our i-umbilical cords of information always at the ready.
I know that the people who listen to what I say the most are also those I like the most — probably not coincidence!
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” — Ernest Hemingway
9. They Use Einstein’s Garbage Man Approach
“I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”
He knew that no one should be put on a pedestal above anyone else. Sure, we all have different accomplishments, but so what. That’s surface stuff. Our souls are all on the same plane.
My mom showed me this growing up. She rubbed elbows with some pretty important people in her work, but she treated the disabled man who sold flowers on the corner with the same kindness and genuine respect she showed the power-brokers she worked with.
We can take a lesson from my mom and Einstein.
Treat EVERYONE with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings.
“When I look at a person, I see a person — not a rank, not a class, not a title.” — Criss Jami
10. They Always Talk Others Up
There’s a phenomenon called spontaneous trait transference which means:
The qualities you verbally attribute to others as you speak are the qualities that are subconsciously applied to you by those who are listening to you.
Are you as a boss complaining or gossiping about your boss or that customer or that lousy person over there?
If so, that negativity is being applied to you by all listening. Sure, you need to blow off steam and call out horrible actions but limit how much you degrade other humans, even the bad ones.
Instead, talk people up. Talk all about how good the good people you know are. This way, all that goodness is now being attributed to you.
To other people, you are what you say others are.
In this way, you can choose how people see you by what you choose to say about others.
Choose positive things to say more often to be more likable.
Like I said in the beginning, you can lead without being liked, but it’s so much better to be liked. So much easier. Likability is your leadership cake’s icing.
- Like people first. A likable leader likes people.
- Display a warm competence so people know your good intentions and trust your ability to deliver on them.
- Be true to who you are.
- Be empathetic. Walk in your team’s shoes often.
- Project positive emotion as that’s what your people will receive and reflect.
- Always have an attitude of hope and optimism.
- Be humble — never arrogant.
- Ask genuine, non-pandering questions — then listen hard to the answers.
- Treat everyone with respect and dignity like my mom and Einstein did.
- Avoid gossip or degrading others — instead, talk people up.
If you do these things, there’s simply no way you can’t be a more likable boss. Doing these things makes you more than just a “boss” though.
It makes you a leader people want to follow.
A leader people truly love to follow.