Why likable leaders seem more effective

By Charn McAllister, Sherry Moss & Mark J. Martinko

A recent trend in leadership research is to define a new “style” of leadership (e.g., authentic, ethical), and then demonstrate how following its principles can improve performance. As such, there has been an unending proliferation of leadership styles that have been espoused by researchers and practitioners.

Yet, despite evidence supporting each form of leadership as predictive of leader and follower performance, we began to recognize a problem: If subordinates rated one item on a leadership survey positively, they tended to rate the other items the same.

This is problematic because each of these leadership styles is considered conceptually distinct. The fact that subordinates tend to rate a single leader similarly across each different style supports the idea that there is a common underlying factor in their ratings. We began to suspect that being liked was the driving force behind leadership ratings.

We developed a five-item questionnaire that measured the extent to which an employee liked his or her leader. The results suggested that subordinates tend to rate leaders based on their personal liking of that leader, rather than the leader’s actual behaviors.

But our research also suggests that “likership” is not the opposite of leadership. Instead, being liked is probably one of several key ingredients in the effective-leadership formula. Well-liked leaders can expect subordinates to consider them authentic, transformational, ethical and not abusive. Likewise, teams who like their leaders will be happier at work, go above and beyond what is required of them, experience greater well-being and perform at a higher level.

While being liked is undeniably important, it is not the only answer to effective leadership. Nonetheless, for leaders to simply ignore whether their subordinates like them will undoubtedly prove detrimental to their success.

Charn McAllister is an assistant professor at Northeastern University. Sherry Moss is a professor at Wake Forest University. Mark J. Martinko is an emeritus faculty member at Florida State University.

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