Leaders are paid to step on other people’s toes, which is why a true sign of an effective leader is the willingness to be unpopular. That said, how many of you drive to work every day and say to yourselves, “I can’t wait to be unpopular today?” The famed psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a concept called the Hierarchy of Needs, which describes needs that all human beings have to have a meaningful and productive life. Those needs are Physiological, Security, Recognition, Self-Actualization, and Belonging. Yes, one of the workplace needs we all have is the need to be accepted and to belong.
Yet, earlier, I said the willingness to be unpopular is an essential qualification to be an effective leader. So being an effective leader not only contradicts Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but it also goes against human nature. It takes courage to be an effective leader because it risks the need to conform and fit in. The work of an effective leader is literally unnatural. You have to defy human nature!
Many years ago, as a rookie supervisor, I made a big mistake! Late for a meeting one day, I overheard a brand-new employee being openly criticized by his co-workers for making mistakes. I heard one such co-worker say, “I am not going to correct your mistakes!” Another one said, “We will never get out of here on time with all the mistakes you are making.” I knew that my role as a supervisor was to intervene, but I put my head in the sand because the situation made me uncomfortable. I took the easy way out! The following day, the new employee did not show up to work. They quit the job. I later heard from HR they left because they felt like they were being thrown to the wolves.
I still think about it today because I did not do my job. I let the risk of becoming unpopular and not being accepted keep me from intervening, which created an insecure employee. And as we all know, anxious and insecure employees make choices, such as refreshing their resume and going on Indeed.com.
What should I have done differently?
First of all, when employees criticize other employees' performance, whose job are they doing? That’s right, the leader's role. Leaders go out there and protect the employee. I should have responded by saying, “Hey guys, if this person is not doing what they should be doing, it is my fault…I have not done my job as a leader! Take it up with me and not the employee.”
Leaders, on occasion, you need to act like a secret service agent. Meaning, you need to be willing to take a proverbial bullet on behalf of your employee(s), whether you were involved or not in the training of the employee. It's said that 90% of solving a problem is admitting you have one. On that day, I knew I made a mistake and knew I should have done things differently.
Yes, it takes courage to be a leader and the willingness to be unpopular, too! Remember: Leaders Are Made, Not Born!