A common leadership dilemma: needing to be liked vs liking to be needed 

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This week I am running a series of leadership workshops in America. 

I had dedicated a chunk of the 13-hour flight across the Pacific to putting together the finishing touches on one of my presentations. 

About two hours into the flight (after the first ‘meal’ service), the person sitting next to me asked me what I was working on. He assured me that he didn’t mean to pry but that he had been intrigued by the heading on the slide I was working on.  

What leadership is not. 

I shared that I was facilitating a few different leadership programs around the USA, and he then proceeded to tell me that he owned a ‘pretty large’ telecommunications business with offices in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver, Colorado. 

He then asked if I would be OK if he took a closer look at the slide since he was curious as to what I believed didn’t equate to leadership. 

I turned my laptop towards him so that he could see the screen more clearly and he just stared at the three bullet points under the heading for quite a while. 

  • It’s not about being everybody’s friend or being ‘cool’ 
  • It’s not about being the hero in every situation 
  • It’s not about pleasing everyone 

“Gosh, I should probably come along to your course”. 

When I asked him why, he said, “I don’t necessarily need to be liked, but even with 400+ employees, I definitely like to be needed”. 

Interesting. Not needing to be liked; but liking to be needed. 

Given that I could certainly relate to this having looked after some pretty big teams myself (including my own company) over the years, I let him know that his ‘predicament’ would also resonate with many other leaders. 

He seemed relieved. 

Needing to be liked refers to a leader’s desire for approval and acceptance from others.  

They prioritise being well-regarded by their team members and may therefore engage in behaviours that please others or avoid conflict, even if this compromises their own principles or the best interests of the organisation. 

This need for approval can stem from a fear of rejection, a desire for validation, or a belief that popularity equates to effective leadership. 

As I had highlighted on my slide, leadership is not about being popular. 

On the other hand, liking to feel needed implies that a leader finds fulfilment in being of service and making a meaningful impact. 

They derive satisfaction from meeting the needs of their team members and contributing to their success. Rather than seeking personal validation or popularity, these leaders focus on providing guidance, support, and expertise to help others thrive. Their motivation is rooted in a genuine desire to make a difference and positively influence the lives of those they lead. 

The difference lies in the focus of attention and motivation. 

While both perspectives may involve a desire for positive relationships, needing to be liked tends to be centred around personal validation, while liking to feel needed focuses on a leader’s commitment to serving others and fulfilling their responsibilities. 

I thought my neighbour had dozed off, but then he said, “I just don’t think being liked should be the sole focus of leadership. A leader’s effectiveness should be measured by their ability to achieve goals, inspire others, and make a positive impact, rather than solely by their likeability”. 

I smiled and then showed him my screen again. I was now working on another slide which simply said: 

Leadership is about setting your team up for success to the point where they should be just as strong without you. It’s about replacing the “I” for the “we’, supporting change, encouraging collaboration, being courageous, and making a positive impact. 

“You took the words right out of my mouth”, I said. 

He then explained that his desire to feel needed was directly related to his ability to make an impact, to have a positive influence on all his team members, and to create meaningful and lasting change aligned with his goals and values. 

“I guess the feeling of liking to be needed is also about having a sense of purpose and knowing my work is significant”, he said. 

I really liked his point.  

After all, for any leader, a sense of purpose is about having a clear understanding of the underlying meaning behind their leadership role, and a strong belief in the value and significance of their work. 

Are you a leader with a sense of purpose and a clear direction for yourself and your organisation? 

Do you know what you want to achieve and why it matters? If you do, then you would probably agree that this clarity of purpose (and potential desire to feel needed) provides you with a guiding light that influences your decisions, actions, and priorities. 

This sense of purpose, personal feeling of fulfillment, and genuine enthusiasm for making an impact will also bring a sense of authenticity and integrity to your role, thereby inspiring others to join you on your journey. 

Why, then, do so many leaders feel such a strong need to be liked? 

Perhaps the question should really be why leaders feel they might struggle if they are not liked? 

If a leader’s need for approval hinders their ability to make tough decisions, provide constructive feedback, or make others accountable, it can undermine their effectiveness and hinder the progress of the team. It may also require more of an effort to maintain trust as they may face scepticism or resilience from team members. 

I knew I was being a bit cheeky, but I figured since he had asked to see what I was working on, then maybe I could ask him how he personally fuelled his desire to feel needed, and then perhaps I could incorporate his responses into a few additional slides in my presentation. 

He talked about having a compelling vision that engages his employees; he discussed empowering and motivating his team members and influencing and inspiring them to reach their full potential; and he shared how he strives to create an environment that fosters growth, learning, and innovation by providing guidance, support, and mentorship. 

Upon reflection, his ideas weren’t simply worthy of another slide or two. I was able to create a completely new module that I will be delivering as part of one of my workshops this week. 

I’m not a believer in co-incidences. But I was glad I’d selected that particular seat for my flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. 

Remember, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders appreciate the subtle differences between needing to be liked and liking to feel needed. 

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