Leadership: Popularity Vs. the Bottom Line

What kind of leader are you? Are you the popular leader who is liked by people or are you the leader who just focuses on the bottom line? Is it possible to be popular and still focus on the bottom line? Can you make and implement difficult decisions, drive hard for performance and still be popular?

A leader is put in charge of the resources within a company, which often will define the objective of the business, as ‘to create value for its shareholders’. A leader has a fiduciary duty to deliver this objective as the overriding or primary objective to which all else comes second.

For example, 47% of local manufacturers have stated that they have, or intend to retrench staff according to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. Announcing and implementing a retrenchment program is not popular and is based on the bottom line.

The launch of a new brand and the announcement of bonuses, if done well, is a popular decision and it focuses on the bottom line. But what if the bonuses are lower than people expect? The challenge becomes maintaining popularity while preserving ones loyalty to the bottom-line.

A comparison of two well-known leaders namely Richard Branson and Steve Jobs enabled us to paint a clearer picture of this.

Richard Branson is very popular in his companies. He has made the Virgin group of companies a fun place to work. In his own words, he stated “I think work should be fun. It should be enjoyable. It should be satisfying.”

He is known to give his employees autonomy to do their work. Starting them off on smaller projects
and challenging them to do more. A good testament to this is Alex Dormandy who started out at the
company at the age of 24. By age 26, he was running Virgin Cola and he launched Virgin Mobile and
Virgin Active. By the age of 29, he had secured a board seat.

Richard Branson is a very popular leader with a good focus on the bottom line. Incidentally, what may
have helped him over the years is the fact that he personally owns the business. Thus, short-term
profit pressures may not be as acute as in publicly quoted businesses for example.

Steve Jobs on the other hand was not an easy person to work with. In an interview by Milwaukee
Business Journal in 2014 with Steve Wozniack, it was revealed that Apple employees said that they
would never work with Jobs again if they had the chance. He would push people to deliver on tight
deadlines while openly confronting them. Steve Jobs was not a very popular leader though he
delivered the bottom line.

What kind of leader would you like to be?

Popularity and the bottom line can seem to be on polar ends for most leaders and the first thing is
probably to establish the foundation of your leadership brand. While no-one wants to be popular
while failing to deliver business objectives, most of us would prefer to be popular as we successfully
pursue our financial objectives.

One way to reconcile this may be to articulate our leadership brand more realistically. Instead of
striving to be “popular”, what if we set out to be a “respected” leader?

Instead of trying to please all of the people all of the time, the focus shifts to a more manageable and
achievable objective – being respected. Not necessarily easy, but easier. Respect implies several
qualities, including: Competency, Trust, and Communication or Openness.

Competency: As a leader, you have to be competent at what you do. Incompetency will lead to disrespect. Competency consists of the ability, the character and the delivery.

Trust: Leaders need to be trusted by their own bosses to get the job done. But, importantly, they also need to be trusted by their teams. They need to be trusted to tell things as they are. They need to be trusted to implement difficult decisions fairly, objectively and with a concern for those team members affected by those decisions. In other words, they do the right things in the right way.

Openness and communication: This is more than expressing your vision, ideas and thoughts. It is also about demonstrating that you understand the impact of your decisions on your team and that you explain the rationale for your decisions properly. It is also requires that one takes the time to empathize with the team – for example, by acknowledging impacts such as additional workloads or the discomfort of adapting to new ways of doing things.

In the words of John C Maxwell, “a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way”. As you build your leadership brand, do not seek popularity and beware of an absolute focus on the bottom line. Seek respect and understanding.

In years to come, how do you want your team members to describe you? What if people said, “We may not have liked all the decisions, and it was tough at times, but we always understood that difficult choices have to be made in the long-term interest of the business and its stakeholders and, probably, we would have done the same thing in his/her shoes.” Think about your legacy and build your leadership brand on the vision you have.

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