Leadership: Principle vs Popularity

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Leadership: Principle vs Popularity

The long life of an old family friend came to an end last week. More than a generation ago, this fellow was a high-profile public official in my hometown (appointed, not elected). And something of a controversial figure. I was a kid at the height of his notoriety, and I was always struck by the disconnect between the guy I knew (to me, he was just my friends’ dad), and the public persona I saw and read about in the news. He seemed like a nice, if somewhat formal guy in a personal context, but he was often vilified in the media as a hard-nosed, dogmatic tyrant. Now, if you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, our books, or our Fresh Milk newsletter, you’ll know that tyranny isn’t generally a leadership style we advocate. I never worked for the guy, so I don’t know if the word tyrant was an accurate descriptor or not. But I could easily believe he was hard-nosed. And it’s well documented that he had high standards.

What I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time is that my friends’ dad was put in place to right a sinking ship. And right it he did. He took a failing school system and developed it into one of national distinction – in a good way. At the same time he was portrayed in harsh tones by the media, and failed to enjoy popularity in public opinion, he was honored and recognized at the highest levels for restoring excellence to a system that had suffered for too long from mediocrity, and worse.

An article in our local newspaper this week acknowledged his accomplishments, against the backdrop of his not-so-nice-guy image. In the article, his daughter was quoted as saying, “He was a principled man who chose principle over popularity.” Principle over popularity. That’s the lever that leaders often have to pull.

I’m not here to be an apologist for a man whose interpersonal style would probably have needed some adjustments to be effective in the context of today’s world. The lesson I take – and that I hope you’ll take – from this example is that leaders are called not to be our buddies, but to lead, and especially, under tough conditions, to lead us OUT of the crisis, to clearer skies. Contented Cows are not the same as Complacent Cows, and sometimes, as the leader, we have to take unpopular positions, do unpopular things, and make people pretty DIScontented, to give any future to the enterprise. If you’re afraid to do that when it has to be done, are you really a leader?

The annals of business history are chock-full of examples of leaders who brought their respective organizations back from the brink. Few did so while cultivating a kinder-gentler image. Apple’s Steve Jobs, GE’s Jack Welch, IBM’s Lou Gerstner, and Priceline’s Jeff Boyd made some unpopular, and highly effective, decisions. But not all turnaround artists made as many enemies: Doug Conant, of Campbell’s Soup did it through an emphasis on Employee Engagement, and Jack Stack, of Springfield Remanufacturing, famously employed Open Book Management to bring the patient back to life. Good leaders use the treatment that fits the diagnosis.


1. The best leaders have to sometimes take unpopular positions, and make unpopular decisions. If that’s not among your skills, don’t sign up for leadership.

2. You don’t have to be abusive about it. In fact, you can’t lead from a position of abuse. For the record, my friend was accused of being tough – never abusive. I later served on a community committee he chaired during a particularly difficult time. He took a clear stand, but he was always the consummate gentleman.

3. If your leader seems to be steering the ship through rough seas, and in so doing, is making some unwelcome decisions, consider – just consider – that he or she may be choosing principle over popularity. Maybe cut ’em some slack for a while.

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