The People Paradox in Leadership

Leadership is about People. Yet if you need people to be a leader, then you will never be effective. The same thing that is the strength and center of leadership, is the same that can be it’s weakest link. In his HBR Article Aptly titled ” You’re a Leader Now. Not Everyone is Going to Like You.” Martin G Moore, states that as leaders, conflict aversion is not an option and that one of the most difficult psychological barriers to overcome as a leader is the ability to do things that are opposite to our primordial instinct of the desire to be liked. As someone in charge, almost everything you do will have the potential to trigger a conflict or resistance in one way or another.

“Bringing out the best in each person will require you to have countless direct, honest, and empathetic conversations. Some leaders never master this.”

Leadership before Friendship

My father recently reminded me of this statement he has always used when reprimanding me or any of my four brothers ” I am your parent, not your friend”. At the basic level of parenting this is a powerful statement. This he specifically uses to distinguish and reaffirm that to him, friendship is secondary to his role as a father , a similar approach should inform our leadership. We are first leaders before friends and the latter should never be a priority over the former.

“If you learn to put yourself in your people’s shoes, your duty of care to them will outweigh your fear of giving them critical feedback”

As a leader , your primary role is to bring out the best in your teams. There is no where this is more critical than when making difficult decisions and when giving critical but constructive feedback to those in our charge. High performing teams are made of high performing individuals and everyone deserves competent leadership.

Leadership like true friendship is about having a meaningful relationship. It is about tackling those difficult conversations while appreciating that avoiding them only serves to degrade the relationship and is to the disadvantage of those in it. But as leaders, your leadership responsibility must always take a precedence, both to the individual and to the team.

Respect before Popularity

The sooner you accept that as a leader you cannot please everyone, the better you start to lead. As a young manager, I struggled with this for a long time, I wanted to ensure that everyone is happy and I am liked, I was concerned with doing that which will not make me unpopular among my team members. This was even more challenging considering my first role was leading a team that I previously worked with as peers, but also a majority of which had much expertise in their domains of technology than I had.

 If You Want to Make Everyone Happy, Don’t Be A Leader, Sell Ice Cream.

The American President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk that said: ” The buck stops here”. This meant that as the Leader of the nation, he had to make all tough decisions and in addition accept to bear the full responsibilities of those decisions. The way to be able to make the RIGHT decisions is therefore ability to say NO when majority wants Yes and to say YES when a majority may prefer a NO, it is the ability of the leader to do that which is right and not necessarily that which is correct.

Correctness can be a bout politics but that which is right, is about prioritizing the good of the organization and the team over individual glory and expedience.  When people understand our values, they can more often than not predict how we would respond to given situations and this also gives them an assurance of the leader being consistent in her decisions. This earns us respect among our teams and understanding that we cannot please everybody clears the path for us to do that which is right and thus earns us respect as leaders.

Knowledge will give you power, but character respect. – Bruce Lee

As always, I am just a man. We keep learning.


Ouko Joseph is a Husband, Father, Son and a Leader in the making. A passionate student of leadership. Read more here

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