Do business leaders need to be likeable to succeed?

Elliott Haworth
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In a pivotal debate during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton was told that, unlike her opponent Barack Obama, she was “not likeable”.

Obama couldn’t resist a cheeky retort. “You’re likeable... enough”, he said. And the rest is history.

Eight years on and little has changed – Clinton still has a likeability problem. She is a “likeability liability”, according to one commentator, with a “personality deficit”. She’s perceived as hard-nosed and anodyne, an establishment figure, detached from general society after a lifetime in DC of legal jargon and policy planning.

It’s hard not to make a link to her gender. How many male candidates have ever been told to “smile more”? Why is a woman who is attempting to reach the highest office in the world criticised for being “ambitious”?

This year’s presidential campaign is an aberration, though. Usually there’s at least one candidate who fits the “likeable” bill, but between Donald Trump and Clinton respectively, they possess the highest and second-highest disapproval ratings in the history of either party.

Read more: Clinton and Trump's dismal debate laid bare America's perilous divisions

Liked, loved, or feared?

But do successful leaders, in business as well as politics, need to be likeable? It is possible to be effective without being liked, according to a study from the Harvard Business School, but the odds aren’t great. Out of 51,836 leaders, they found just 27 who were rated at the bottom quartile in terms of likeability, but the top in terms of overall leadership effectiveness – that’s one in 2,000.

But why might this be the case? In the past, it was the norm for managers to be autocratic, with little regard for how their employees felt about them. Now though, according to one study, just 19 per cent of business leaders in the UK employ this leadership technique.

Partly the change is a consequence of a fundamental shift in the economy. With a business’s human capital an increasingly important factor in its long-term success, an environment in which staff fear the management is likely to see their creativity constrained. They may work hard, but they won’t deliver to their full capacity because they’re worried about making mistakes.

Being a liked, or even loved, leader can therefore be advantageous. Empowering people with freedom and responsibility so they can take initiative and be creative can lead to them taking risks that pay off.

Read more: Four things women need to succeed in the City


You can’t be nice all the time though. Niccolò Machiavelli pondered the conundrum of whether being loved or feared was preferable in The Prince, some 500 years ago. His response was hedged: “it may be answered that one should wish to be both,” he said, “but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

Machiavelli was essentially acknowledging that those in authority will inevitably have to make decisions that won’t please everybody.

Instead of actively trying to be liked, loved or feared, strike a balance by aiming for respect. When we respect someone, we want to cooperate or affiliate ourselves with them. If you’re a respected leader, when you have to make tough decisions, you will be seen as having good judgement.

This is the issue Clinton faces: her judgement will be questioned becauseshe isn’t liked. Her hawkishness will be unpopular in an increasingly insular climate. If she wins, she’ll have to make tough decisions that millions will dislike, simply because she made them.

In the same 2008 debate, Clinton remarked that “in 2000 we ended up with a President who people wanted to have a beer with”. A President who dragged his country to war, and still won a second term, she might have added.

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