What Makes a Likeable Leader?
originally published on LinkedIn. Reprinted with permission.
I’ve been thinking about and writing about likeable business for several years now. There are many opinions about what makes a likeable leader, and about whether it’s even desirable for a leader to be likeable. My wife Carrie Kerpen, the CEO of Likeable Media who celebrates a birthday today and is pictured above, is the most likeable person I know. After interviewing hundreds of CEOs of fast-growing companies, I’m convinced that it’s way better for leaders to be likeable. But what makes a likeable leader? I reveal the 11 traits that I’ve found make a likeable leader below. But first, I asked this question to leaders from The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. Here are 19 of their diverse responses:
1. An Inclination to Smile Often
Believe it or not, my natural inclination to smile has made me very likeable as a leader. Often people have bad days, and a kind smile from someone that they work with can brighten their day.
2. A Balance of Firmness and Understanding
The Millennials entering the work force are not accustomed to the old style of tough-love leadership used by many highly successful older leaders. There are times that will require an iron fist, but there’s no question that they need considerably more TLC. Taking a personal interest in their lives while being understanding and reasonable, but firm when necessary, is a good balance.
People who work underneath you want to know that you’re a human being, and this means talking to them about your personal life, passions and fears. When my reports take me off that pedestal and get to know me, they give me much more of themselves.
4. Leading by Example
As a founder, the most important thing you can do is lead by example. We ask a lot of our employees: work, time and personal sacrifice. The only way such demands can be fair is if you push yourself to go well beyond them. Don’t tell your employees what you mean by hard work — show them.
The most likeable quality in a leader is not acting like a jerk. You didn’t always have it figured out, and your business wasn’t always this successful. Great leaders recognize that hard work and luck contribute to their success, which makes them more likeable in the marketplace, office and with clients.
The best leaders always tell the truth — especially when people don’t necessarily want to hear what they have to say. What separates a true leader from someone who overexposes or comes across as insensitive is her capacity to structure the message in a way that people can best hear it, understand it (even if they don’t agree) and take appropriate action from it.
My co-founder holds a Ph.D. in personality psychology, so each week our team does fun personality quizzes. She’s determined that I’m the “giver.” No matter what I’m working on, I’ll always drop everything to speak with team members, hear them out and get my hands dirty with one of their projects. I really listen to our customers so we can build products to help them solve their problems.
8. Being an Open Book
Whether I’m having a pow-wow with my team or speaking at an event, I always encourage people to ask me personal questions and things they really want to know, but are afraid to ask. Sometimes, I contractually can’t share something. But if my experiences, mistakes and failures can help someone else, I’m happy to share them, even if they’re uncomfortable to discuss.
To be a successful and likeable leader, you have to actually respect and admire the people you work with. If you believe you’re better than them, either you’re wrong or you hired wrong.
10. A Sense of Humor
Injecting a little humor into the workplace makes for a better working environment. Staff members who see their leader as someone who can laugh at things (and at themselves, as well), are sure to be happier and less likely to look for greener pastures.
11. A Willingness to Listen
I’ve heard over and over again that the thing that makes me a great leader is my willingness to listen. This trait doesn’t seem like a hard one, but it’s surprising how many leaders struggle with this. Taking criticism well is a great first step. Willingness to hear other people’s input and ideas can often lead to innovative and game-changing growth, as well. An “open door policy” fosters loyalty, keeps communication lines open, builds camaraderie and can often help catch what might have been a catastrophic oversight or an easily avoidable mistake. Don’t worry about your openness undermining the strength of your leadership. Being willing to listen doesn’t guarantee you have to take every suggestion; it strengthens your position and increases leadership longevity.
12. Work Ethic
Being a leader means walking the walk. It’s important to show your team and employees that you are putting 110 percent into your company. Making the most sales calls, hustling PR placement, striking seemingly achievable deals and working nonstop are a few things that show off a dedicated leader. If you do these things, your employees will follow and try to compete with your work ethic.
I try to be an approachable CEO. My team members can come and talk to me whenever they want, and I consider every idea my employees give me. We’re all on the same team, and as the team’s "coach," I’ve got to be a good listener.
People live to be inspired, and nothing moves people more than a good vision from a charismatic leader. These leaders have a presence all the way from when they walk into the room to when they open their mouths to speak to their peers. You want a dedicated team? Give them a cause and an inspiring leader to take them on the journey.
Of course I want to be the likeable leader who others can relate to, and I want to be friends with everyone. But I’ve learned it is much more important to show your team you trust them. Trusting your team not only makes your job easier, but your employees will also know you believe in them and want them to succeed.
16. A Commitment to Help Others Succeed
Likeable leaders are people who are dedicated to the success of others. If you want to be a likeable leader, you must genuinely want to help your employees work together to discover success as a team.
The most likeable leaders are able to relate to their entire team, whether it is the summer interns or their seasoned investors. They understand the wants, needs and concerns of each team member and know when to act as a the boss or when to take a step back and be a friend. This quality is instrumental in creating a bond with the team and earning trust, which is essential for any leader.
18. Giving Bold Feedback
The single greatest attribute of a leader is to engage in feedback loops with your team and your company. Feedback needs to be honest, empathetic and fair, and it should also be bold enough to both resonate emotionally and to push someone to always do better.
19. Giving Recognition Liberally
The biggest motivator isn’t money or titles; it’s public recognition. Give it liberally as you walk through the halls. That doesn’t mean you should accept failure, but public criticism should be avoided. Instead, take someone aside and make expectations clear.
This is what 19 young leaders believe makes you likeable as a leader. Here are the 11 traits that I believe make up a likeable leader, as I’ve written about before here on LinkedIn, with hyperlinks to articles I’ve written about some of these principles:
4) Team Playing
5) Surprise & Delight
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.
Dave Kerpen is a student of all things Likeable. He is the founder and CEO of Likeable Local. He is also the cofounder and Chairman of Likeable Media, and the New York Times bestselling author of Likeable Social Media and Likeable Business.