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Home > Business > Special

Leadership is not about popularity

Sanjiv Ahuja | November 30, 2007

There is a big myth in business that you need a buy-in of your strategy from your team, and also I think there's a big myth believed by leaders that they need to win the popularity contest inside a company.

As a leader of a business, be very clear in your mind that you are not running a democracy. By virtue of the fact that you have been anointed the leader, there is a significant degree of autocracy that comes with you. When you make decisions and when you make choices, they're not always the most popular.

If your objective was to ensure that your team bought into your strategy and liked what you did, then, candidly, you are not needed as a leader. You could do a continuous poll and determine what decisions and direction the company ought to take, do it from morning until night, and then every body votes on it - and the business goes wherever.

You, as a leader, are supposed to make some decisions that are necessarily not going to be very popular. And that is OK; but stand up and be counted for those decisions. Sometimes those decisions are where you bet your job, but that's OK; stand up and be counted for those.

Look at the history of mankind -- all successful leaders at different stages of their lives have made those decisions. In our efforts, these are "bet your job" decisions, and that's OK; other people have "bet your life" decisions. Many successful leaders have made "bet your life" decisions successfully, and some unsuccessfully.

Some of us make decisions successfully, some unsuccessfully, but most of the decisions we make are not that critical. But we must make decisions, and you must not get deluded with the absolute myth that you need to be a popular leader.

You need to be an effective leader; you need to be a decisive leader. And while you are leading with effectiveness, decisiveness, clarity, and the passion for the success of your business, your team eventually does follow you.

I'll give you an example. Ten years ago I was brought into a business where employee morale was down, product quality was down, the profits were in a terrible shape, and the revenue was in decline for many years. Most of the customers thought that it wasn't a business that could be turned around; most of the employees thought it wasn't a business that could be turned around either.

When I stepped in, I did have to make a significant number o changes. I changed most of the leadership team, I changed a good part of the management team that worked for those leaders, and essentially I restructured the business. In the early days I probably wasn't the most popular leader.

Actually, I know I was not the most popular leader. But by the time we had finished the transformation, the company was delivering world-class performance in the area it was engaged in, in terms of quality, delivery, productivity, profitability, and growth. In all criteria, it was performing in a world-class manner, and I would like to say that by the time I left I was probably the most popular leader that company had ever had. But if I were looking at employee polls, I probably wouldn't have taken any of the tough decisions that I had to take.

Like all leaders in all situations, you have to make the tough calls - but stand up for those and be counted. Don't shy away, and don't get confused between popularity and the right choices. Right choices and popularity do not have to go hand in hand.


  • A leader does not run a democracy. Leaders must make the tough decisions necessary to benefit the company's profitability and performance, not their own popularity.
  • The toughest decisions will sometimes be the most unpopular ones. If leaders need to make unpopular choices, they should call a meeting and explain to people why the decisions are necessary.
  • If staff members have grievances, leaders should ask them to voice their concerns. A leader may need to talk through why particular concerns are not in the best interests of the company.

Sanjiv Ahuja is the chief executive of Orange Group.

Excerpted from:

Leading By Example, Lessons Learned Series. 

Copyright 2007 Fifty Lessons Limited. 

Price: Rs 415 (approximately). 

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved.

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