In the following post, D’Amore-McKim School of Business Assistant Professor of Management Charn McAllister outlines how the degree to which a leader is liked relates to assessing the effectiveness of their leadership.
In late 2007, I found myself in Kuwait preparing to fly over the Iraqi border with my Air Cavalry Troop. Kuwait is a middle-ground, a short stopover where Soldiers finish all required training before finally deploying into combat. As I waded through the sand one morning on the way to the airfield, I couldn’t help but smirk as I took a photo of a sign claiming, “We Need Leadership, Not Likership.”
As a young lieutenant about to lead soldiers in combat for the first time, I often thought back on my training – leadership was not about being liked, but instead about earning the respect and trust of your followers. Despite this leadership philosophy having been drilled into my head for years, I often considered the value inherent in being liked – in addition to being respected and trusted. Striving to achieve this leadership trinity certainly meant traversing a difficult path, but it seemed intuitive that leaders who successfully navigated this course would meet with unmatched success. Yet, it was abundantly clear, and crystallized by the presence of this sign, that the Army espoused traditional leadership principles, and that did not include “likership.”
Fast forward to 2018, where a second career and the opportunity to work with some outstanding researchers gave me the opportunity to investigate the veracity of my thoughts from Kuwait. Using a 10-study package, we examined how subordinate affect impacts subordinates’ ratings of their leaders. We defined subordinate affect as the degree to which subordinates have positive or negative feelings about their supervisors – more succinctly, it’s a measure of leader liking. The results demonstrated that leader liking, rather than subordinates’ review of specific leader behaviors, determines their overall judgement of their leaders.
What does this mean?
- First, leadership researchers have generated a large body of leadership theories intended to help improve our understanding of this difficult task by outlining critical leadership behaviors. However, most of these theories share overlapping ideas or practices and almost none consider any form of leader liking. Thus, when we added subordinate affect into these models of leadership, their ability to predict leader success was greatly diminished or eliminated. This leads us to believe that many of these leadership theories are not that different from each other and we need to better delineate the contribution each theory makes to our understanding of leadership.
- Second, our new measures of leader liking and disliking (i.e., Leader Affect Questionnaires) can now be used to address the first issue by allowing researchers to account for subordinates’ feelings towards their leaders. This will open the door to clearer and more targeted reviews of actual leadership behaviors and practices.
- Third, we should consider leader liking as a key component to the practice of leadership. We view affect as an integral aspect of the evaluative process that generates subordinates’ initial reaction towards a leader, which, in turn, shapes subordinates’ evaluations of their leader. Disregarding the importance of affect in the leadership process should be done at leaders’ own peril.
So, is “likership” the answer?
Our research certainly suggests that it is part of the solution. From a practical perspective, this should not be taken as a call for leaders to seek the approval of their subordinates at the expense of their mission or the integrity of their assigned task. Experienced leaders will certainly recognize the Faustian bargain inherent in trying to befriend their subordinates. Nonetheless, for leaders to simply ignore their subordinates’ “liking” of them will undoubtedly prove detrimental to their own success. As with most complex topics, more research is needed to completely untangle leadership behaviors from subordinates’ liking of their leaders.
However, in the meantime, I think it’s safe to take down the sign.