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When I am out running in the woods around Gothenburg I often choose to run without any disturbances like music or accepting incoming phone calls, even if I always have my iPhone with me. The reason for this is that it is so insanely interesting to listen to my own mind, wondering around along different thought tracks. One word that appeared in my mind during a run was “being likeable”. While I am running physically, my mind is taking me elsewhere psychologically. Sometimes to the extent that I wonder how I physically got to the point where I find myself waking up from daydreaming while running.

likable |ˈlīkəbəl|(also likeable )
adjective
(esp. of a person) pleasant, friendly, and easy to like.

“Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently. This builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust.”

-Lance Secretan

This time I found my brain remembering myself that I have, repeatedly in different situations and from different unrelated people, heard that I am likeable. Either as a person or as a leader or as a colleague. I especially remembered a headhunter that I met for the first time and whom I found very comfortable to talk with during an evenings interview. I often ask headhunters for a sincere review of our time and talk together with the intent that I might learn something on my appearance and my first impression with people. She thought for a second and then shortly and sincerely said:

-Well, I can for sure say that it is very hard not to like you. You are very likeable.

Of course I was very flattered and didn’t really know what to say, except for replying a sincere thank you. But when I was walking back from the restaurant to my hotel I was thinking of what we had been talking about and what impression I had left with her. I was then a bit confused over her response and wondered if it was good or bad that I was likeable, when we sat there discussing possible future leadership responsibilities. I left my thoughts unfinished and went on with my life as the likeable guy. Until I was out running the other day…

In general, I feel good about being a likeable person and manager. But what does it really mean? Is it a good trait in the hiring companies eyes? Why am I likeable? Due to my personality, competence, appearance or a combination? Is it how I talk or what I talk about that makes me likeable? Is it found to be a weak trait in the discussion on a senior management position? Will they think that I am incapable of handling the tough decisions needed to be made?

Often charismatic leaders are found to be liked and people follow them anywhere. Some claim that you may get away with less well developed traits by having a likeable appearance. Some say that you may hide incompetence or not being that smart as someone else by having the right appearance and being liked. Is the likeable person a ”being-liked-junkie” or is he or she just likeable? Mike Thompson writes in his blog ”The Organizational Champion” [2]:

”There is no question that the most extraordinary leaders, smart or not, are likeable. And likeability isn’t represented by popularity seekers or political glad-handers. Likeability is represented by those who are genuine, trusted, inspiring, interesting, bold, vulnerable, and serving.”

A little later in the aforementioned blog article it is stated:

”If the CEO isn’t liked, the product brand is likely not liked.”

This is what you are gambling with when you are hiring your next CEO! My first thought comes to Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft. I do not know him (of course) so I have to judge him out of the media picture, his official appearances, what and how he says things and on his body language. I do NOT find him being a likeable leader, but he is most probably super competent. It doesn’t matter to me. Of course it isn’t solely out of Mr Ballmer’s appearance or him being likeable or not that makes me choose Microsofts products or not, but it affects me in my decision. I link their products with an inner picture of Steve Ballmer, whom I do not like the appearance of. I end up in a negative spiral.

A likeable leader, that I don’t know either, has made a fantastic impression on me. Sir Richard Branson seems to be a very likeable leader. You don’t have to google very long until you find very likeable descriptions of him. He seems to care for our future environment and ploughs enormous amounts of money into different environmentally focused projects, being an underdog and disrupting old business arenas, encouraging to entrepreneurship and more. The list is long. I have not read anything that made him not so likeable (but OK, I haven’t read everything about him yet…). But of course, he has his days too, as everyone does. He’s simply a human, him as well…

It strikes me that notes are seldom taken down, during a job interview, whether an applicant is likeable or not. And of course it is hard to set a figure on that trait. It is of course subjective and more of a gut feeling with the few that meet a prospect CEO in a job interview. It is hard to give a person a rating on likeability, since it is a highly subjective judgement that need to be made. And we want the figure to be accurate with one decimal… We all like different things in a future leader to be hired.

Sometimes people get lost in thinking about what a likeable leader may do for your company. Some make the likeable leader equal to a weak leader that isn’t capable of earning respect or making the right and tough decisions needed in a company management role. Boy, do they mix things up. In my book it has nothing to do whether you are likeable if you are capable of making the right decisions or not. It has to do with leadership capabilities. Here [4] is an example of the more ”hardcore” mentality some have when thinking of what type of leader they prefer and why.

Types

There are different types of likeability according to me. I find these to be:

  • Professionally likeable

”People lacking professionalism make liking others a condition for cooperating with them. Schmucks only cooperate with their buddies.” [3].

In being professionally likeable I find high degrees of having competence for your task, letting others speak, asking for advice and then making decisions, together with having a professional appearance, among other.

  • Personally likeable

If you’re personally likeable emphasis is made on appearance; body language, how you talk to people (with or down to), if you share personal details, thinking and thoughts. I find personally likeable persons to have a well founded self confidence, so that they don’t get uncomfortable when talking about feelings and thoughts they have.

  • Privately likeable

A privately likeable person gets his grades on private matters; if he is engaged in certain non-profit activities with his family, friends or organisations, what hobbies he or she has got, animal friendly and other to the company and job as a CEO seemingly irrelevant topics.

  • Purposefully likeable

These persons are fortunately pretty easy to detect if you have your sensors and radars adjusted and active. They are only adapting a likeable attitude when it suits their own needs and fits their own targets. A recruiting situation is a very common place to bring forward a purposefully likeable attitude, any reasonably smart person understand this. The trick is to find out whom is genuinely likeable. You don’t want to hire this person, because when sh-t hits the fan it will be messy…

  • Unlikeably likeable

Here the positive trait of being likeable has gone too far and turned into a disadvantage for the person. It might even have turned into a behaviour much like what is described in the article mentioned above, [4], as a poor example of what might happen. This type of leader is driven by being liked by others and thereby becomes weakened in his capability of making the right decisions that sometimes are the tough decisions needed to be made.

  • Combinations of the above

Good or bad

So, is being likeable a good trait? Not always. I do not find it being positive if having been categorised as an unlikeably likeable type or a purposefully likeable leader. In my own recruitments I have and will avoid those types of persons, if I am capable to detect them before I hire them. You must also take into account that one trait of a psycho is the ability of manipulation. They are very capable in giving you the right impression and confirming what they appreciate you are looking for, to get the job.

If you are any or a combination of the first three likeable types above you are in a good position of having a great life. And remember that these traits have nothing to do whether you are capable of making the right tough decisions. That has to do with your capability as a leader to separate yourself and your relations to your colleagues and customers from the well-being of the company and its customers. Your customers should always come first, your company second. But if you think of your customers first, the success of your company is in the bank, so that should come natural.

There isn’t any time or any decision where you have to set aside your trait of being likeable in my opinion. Tough decisions especially needs a likeable leader to deliver them, if you want the decision to be well received. An unlikeable leader who delivers unwanted, from the top tough decisions, will seldom last the needed changes. He will become the executioner that has to leave when the nasty business is done.

But you need to think about why you are liked and nurture this trait and improve on those traits you find yourself to be weaker in. A great list of what makes a likeable leader you find formulated by Penelope Trunk [5] and Dave Kerpen [1]. You find my own list in the summary below.

The relationship to competence

There doesn’t have to be a relationship between being likeable and having competence for the tasks you are assigned to. But they go very well hand in hand if you have a long term strategy of staying at your position. Those who use their likeability to have others do their work, can blame it on being good at delegation for a while, but in the end your staff will get feed up and replace you with someone else. On the other hand, being a competent jerk will have your head rolling out the door quicker [6]. So try firstly to act likeable and improve on competence along the route, if you don’t have it already. It will at least buy you time.

Are you a threat?

Being hired by an insecure CEO or a director level manager and having the two traits of being both competent and likeable will definitely stir some dust in the threat arena. If you  have an insecure CEO or manager and end up in a situation where you have super-support in your own group, team or organisation, are super-competent at what you do and everybody knows this, you might well be paddling towards the entrance. So yes, you should be aware that you own valuable properties that might be fearful for the wrong manager,. If he or she is the psycho one, they might prepare for your departure.

Strategies

So, what may your alternatives look like when trying to become this super-competent and by all liked colleague? What should be my strategy? In my opinion you will succeed as long as you are being yourself. When you start to act in a taken role you will be found as a fake in the end. Likeability comes from your sincere interest in others and in other people’s problems. Your will for others to grow, not yourself to shine. But there must be something that I can do to improve? Yes, of course there are! Read the list by Penelope Trunk [5] and Dave Kerpen [1] together with my own list and try to find out which of the traits you are good at and which you need to improve and go ahead improving. I am sure you will find something in these lists that you aren’t top notch in, otherwise I may very well mistake you for a fake and psychopath… No one is perfect you know…

But also, many of the things that make a person likeable comes from within, an upbringing and an environment. Bret Simmons [3] shows on his blog an important saying by Lewin (1936) to remember:

”Behavior is a function of the person and the environment”

If you are around your fifties and haven’t yet started to be a likeable person, you have a tough task ahead of you. But it’s never too late!! And if you’re in your fifties and is a likeable person, don’t think that you don’t need to work on your appearance and behavior. You concstantly need to evaluate your decisions, communication and engagement in other people.

My list on what you can do to improve

  1. Involve others in decision-making. Let them air their opinion and make yor decision afterwards.
  2. Practice on clear communication. See to it that you get all the why, what and when needed into your message and repeat it three times.
  3. Care for peoples well-being, truly.
  4. Show interest in other peoples backgrounds and platform for decision-making. If you have a capability of understanding your colleagues, customers or enemies standing point you will make much better, informed, successful and well-taken decisions. This will build respect for you as a leader and make you liked.
  5. Be open with your reasoning, as much as possible.
  6. Be positive! Arrive at work with a smile to everyone. You may not love them all but show respect and friendliness and you will be well treated back.

Links and references

  1. 11 Simple Concepts to Become a Better Leader, January 28, 2013, http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130128162711-15077789-11-simple-concepts-to-become-a-better-leader
  2. “Are the Best Leaders Likeable?”, Mike Thompson, 2009-03-30, http://www.organizationalchampions.com/blog/?p=343
  3. ”The likeable leader”, Bret L Simmons, 2011-04-02, http://www.bretlsimmons.com/2011-04/likeable-leadership/
  4. ”The likeable leader”, Distinctive Leadership,  2011-06-14,http://www.distinctiveleadership.com.au/leadership/the-likeable-leader/
  5. “How to make yourself more likable”, Penelope Trunk, 2010-01-06, http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2010/01/06/how-to-make-yourself-more-likable/
  6. ”Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the formation of social networks”, T Casciaro, M Sousa, June 2005, HBR
  7. “25 Favorite Likeable Leadership Quotes”, Napura, 2013-03-24, http://www.experienceproject.com/stories/Knowledge-Sharing/3051828
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