Can I Lead Without Being Liked?

"Why do I really need my staff to like me? Isn't it enough that I just get my job done, lead the company, and generate an outcome that's in everyone's best interest? What's the cost of not being liked anyway?"

May 14th, 2021   |    By: Wil Schroter    |    Tags: Emotional Support

We're all probably a lot less liked than we think — and that's probably OK.

As Founders, we're automatically put on a pedestal, and that pedestal is sometimes used to praise us, and other times to set us up to have rotten tomatoes thrown at us! Either way, we tend to stand out in the organization. In a perfect world, we'd be universally praised and admired. Our staff would love everything we do and only talk nicely behind our backs. But the world isn't perfect, startups are a grind, and the constantly changing floor beneath our feet creates a metric ton of resentment.

But instead of worrying about whether we're going to be universally loved like Kanye, let's talk about what to do about it in the infinitesimal chance we're not.

It Comes With The Job

Being hated on comes with the Founder's job. It actually has less to do (sometimes) with our personality than it does our role. We're ultimately responsible for saying "No" a lot, which fundamentally breeds a lot of angst.

Therefore, the worst mistake we can make is thinking that we can just be "the cool boss" and everyone will cartwheel home with their excitement over how they didn't get the raise they thought they would. When is the last time you felt better about someone that told you "no" to something that was really important to you?

Ideally, we build up enough goodwill on our "good" days that counterbalances some of the "bad" days, but either way, it would be ridiculous to think we're going to be getting high fives for life.

Respected Over Liked

We can sometimes lead without being liked (Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, most Tech and Media leaders) by instead being respected. Now, that's not a "Get Out of Jail Free" card to go and be a total jerk. It means that even when we're not the most charming of leaders, it does help to be really damn competent.

Respect is driven by outcomes, plain and simple. We may not be in love with a leader, but if they drive results, we can easily respect them. As a leader, we should strive to be respected (it means we're competent!) and work to be liked.

The moment we lose respect, (which can come from not being likable) that's when our show is most certainly over. Try losing all of your startups’ money but being "really fun at parties" and see how many people are still looking to work with you.

It Helps to be a Good Human

What we tend to overlook is that being liked, at its core, tends to be about being kind, empathetic, and honest. I think people call that being a "good human." People want to work for people whom they know will do right by them.

That doesn't always mean they like the people that will just throw money at them, although there's a long history of that being super helpful in earning popularity points. They also like people who demonstrate through their actions that they are just good people.

There's a lot to be said about being a leader who simply has the self-awareness to know the difference between just taking action as a leader and taking action as a leader who's also a good person. That's the kind of leader people like, and by way of that, should be the kind of leader every Founder strives to be.

In Case You Missed It

How Much Should I Invest in My Startup? We often wonder whether every dollar of our personal savings should be going toward our startup, or toward our safety.

Why Our Founder Reputation Matters How we represent ourselves as Founders follows us throughout our startup journey. It's more than first impressions, it's how we handle everything from shaking hands — to closing doors.

Is a $0 Salary a Badge of Honor? (podcast) The $0 salary: is it the cool and honorable thing to do, or is it completely and utterly ridiculous?

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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