Do you need to be liked? Is it important in business to be liked?


Do you need to be liked? Is it important in business to be liked?

My answer revolves around three people I knew who can stand as archetypes for us all. Which one are you closest to?

The Man Everyone Loved

Jim (not his real name) is an American and I haven’t seen him for twenty years. But I remember him well, because he was probably the most likable person I met during the thirteen years I spent in the salt-mines of “strategy consulting”. Athletic, good looking, and thoroughly engaging, everybody loved him, especially the people who worked for him. He was intelligent, imaginative, and very hard working. He would never ask anyone to do something and not get down into the trenches with them, to help and guide. Clients loved him too. If you asked around, people would agree – Jim was destined for the top.

But he never made it. For sure, he did okay, but he never achieved anywhere near his or our expectations. Looking back, I think I know why. Jim had one flaw – perhaps it even wrong to think of it as a flaw – which was this: he needed to be loved.

Of course, we all want to be loved. But Jim really needed it. He wanted everyone around him to like and admire him. Like? Yes – that was easy. But admire? There was a problem. When it became necessary to make a tough call, to take an unpopular stand, to block the promotion of a not-quite-good-enough subordinate, or to stand up to a client who was plainly going down the wrong path, Jim was nowhere. It wasn’t that he couldn’t see it. It was just that he couldn’t do it.

He needed to be loved.


The Man Who Was Trouble

At the other end of the spectrum was one of the people I admire most in business, and one of the two people from whom I learned the most – a man who was neither likable, nor, as far as one can tell, ever wanted to be liked. He is dead now, so I can use his real name. Bruce Henderson founded the Boston Consulting Group and took it from nothing to one of the top two consulting firms in the world, measured by its impact on clients and the world, and on those who were lucky enough to work for him.

My boss at BCG was once Sy Tilles, a wise, generous, and judicious man. He recalled at Bruce’s memorial service that he would get a stream of consultants knocking at his door and telling stories which boiled down to “Do you know what he just did to me?” “It was never necessary,” Sy said, “to enquire who ‘he’ was.”

Another Vice-President of BCG said to me early in my career, “Avoid him. Have nothing to do with him. He can only do you harm, never good.”

As it happens, I don’t think that was good advice, though I can understand why it was said. Bruce was someone to cherish and admire, not least because he never shaded or compromised the clarity of his view on anything. He achieved so much, partly because he had no need to be liked. He always did what he thought was right. Nearly always, his view was original, penetrating, and incredibly full of insight. That is how he invented a whole new domain, “business strategy”, and fundamentally changed the way we think about business. The amount of good that flowed from that just cannot be measured. The world would be a much worse place if Bruce Doolin Henderson had never lived, or been concerned about being liked.

My mother always used to ask, “Isn’t there a happy medium?” She was never amused when I mentioned the Witch of Endor. But she had a point.


The Quiet South African

Step forward another character, one of the nicest and brightest people I have ever met. Mike (again disguised) is still building his career, but he already has the most outstanding record in his field of anyone I have ever known. He is a genius at picking winners and makes money so fast that I predict he will become a billionaire, even though his net worth today is modest and he lives frugally. Everyone likes Mike, but unlike Jim, he doesn’t need to be liked by his business associates. His emotional needs are met by his partner and their eleven-year-old daughter, and his close friends, none of whom work in the same arena as Mike.

Is Mike perfect? Well of course not. He was once reluctantly propelled into being the chairman of a company where there were serious interpersonal conflicts. It was not a success. Though he didn’t need to be liked, he didn’t relish dealing with conflict, and wasn’t able to bang heads together. His style is muted and he wins by gentle persuasion. That is possible in his field, where decisions are more important than herding cats. But he teamed up with a business partner who is just as good at decisions as Mike, but who can also lay down the law when necessary.

Three Action Implications

  • If you need to be loved, don’t work in business. At its root lies hard decisions about how to allocate resources. You can need to be loved in politics and still be successful – for example, William Ewart Gladstone, one of Britain’s best prime ministers, and Tony Blair, whose success in winning elections was only equalled by Margaret Thatcher, who belonged more to the Bruce Henderson school. You can be a writer or artist, where the need to be loved is irrelevant, or a performer, where it is positively helpful. But avoid business like the plague. It doesn’t matter if your team will lie down on the tracks for you, if you are headed in the wrong direction.
  • If you don’t need to be liked, and in truth are not that likable, follow the Bruce Henderson course. Be yourself. Don’t try to improve your person-management skills – colleagues will see through it. Realise that your strength is what you do so powerfully that others will clean up after you. Get a likable number two.
  • If you are likable, but don’t need to be liked, you are lucky. But your popularity will not lead to success in business. You need to be excellent – ideally, unique – at one thing that you do. You need to be right to be successful. And if you don’t like conflict, team up with someone just as good as yourself in your sphere, but who can deal firmly and adeptly with difficult people.

Know whether you need to be loved, and face the consequences. Know that while being liked in business is better than the opposite, it still won’t take you very far. And know one thing that will lead to stunning wealth creation. If you don’t know that, or have the pursuit of that knowledge as your goal, you can be a foot-soldier in business, but you will never make a difference.


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