To be Popular or Principled?

So here’s the thing.  Leadership often demands that you make unpopular decisions. It’s a bit like being a parent sometimes where you make decisions for your children and they’ll sulk, protest, plead but it had to be done.  Being in a leadership position can be a very lonely existence, requiring guts, courage and…… principles.

This is why I find on my travels that Leaders tend to hold strong principles. Notice I said strong – they may be very ‘unprincipled’ principles, that is, unethical in some way, but they stand by them.  Some principles have very moral and ethical foundations, but either way their ability to be consistent in this respect arguably demonstrates a strength of character and conviction.  That’s why people who hated Margaret Thatcher’s policies will still stay something positive about her style of leadership. Being principled is not be confused necessarily with arrogance and self righteousness.  To be a principled person does not mean that you do not listen to other people, never concede a mistake or think you are superior to your followership. It does mean that you have a bottom line – a line that you will not cross – A belief so strong that you would be prepared to lose something great in order to stand by it.  Nelson Mandela may be a good example of this.  His jail term would have been a lot shorter if he had renounced violence.  He faced a lot of criticism towards the end of his jail term and even more on his release and term as the Leader of South Africa. Nonetheless he did those 27 years although it is accepted that Winnie Mandela and the Free Nelson campaign had much to do with his release and popularity.  Again I stress, HE did the 27 years on the inside. So what would have been the story I wonder, if after 5 years or so, he did as the authorities had been pressuring him to do? One thing is certain that had he been released then, it’s unlikely that I would even know his name to write about him now, nearly 2 years after his death at the age of 95. During those 27 years a symbolic leader became the leader of a country of many Nations. I suggest standing on a strong principle had something but not everything, to do with that.

Conversely, I have encountered many people who strive to be popular and one thing that strikes me about most of them is that they are not leaders! The inherent thing about wanting to be popular is the need to then sway towards what or who is popular.  This behaviour and strong convictions cannot comfortably co exist. Therefore if they are leaders they are seen as weak, or if they are not, they seldom demonstrate any leadership potential.  Popularism is about wanting to be seen with the in-crowd and around the flavour of the month, be that politically or socially. A bit like those who will use hash tags that are trending in their tweets as they know it’s likely to get them noticed.  On a more concerning level,  there is often trust and integrity level as you know people of such character will not be making a stand on anything any time soon! If you’ve got popularists amongst your network be aware that they are unlikely to watch your back – more stab you in it! Such people of fair weather character are likely to be dissonant to the impact of their behaviour  – another reason not to have them in your inner circle. Leaders need a trusted circle and know that they have the support of their team.  Popularists are only loyal to what serves their purpose or interest and cannot be called upon in situations requiring courage and integrity. So how would you spot such a person amongst your network?

  • Are they sycophantic?
  • Do they find it difficult to have a position on a particular issue, when required?
  • Do they shy away from saying or do something which is right so as not to cause offence?
  • Do they hide behind the philosophy of ‘win-win’ as a way of trying to please everyone?
  • Do they see conflict as being entirely unhealthy?
  • Do they say things in private that they are not prepared to say in public when needed?

This is not prescriptive or definitive but the more ‘Yeses’ may be a red flag illuminating a popularist amongst you.

In the realms of Leadership, principle trumps popularism every time.  Whether you agree or not, it would be good to hear from you!