Leadership or Popularity

In my article titled "Thoughts on Leadership", I ended with the following statement:

Leadership is not a popularity ticket. It is a call to productive, creative achievement with men and women of like-mind.

Recently this has been the focus of my thoughts on leadership. That is, the difference between popularity and leadership.

In a democratic society voting is a fairly standard way of appointing
“office-holders” whom we then look to for leadership. Unfortunately
voting is no guarantee that leadership will emerge because voters’
opinions and criteria will always dictate how they vote.

Popularity may get a friend into a position but it does not necessarily
get the right leader into the right position of authority to ensure
productive and creative achievement with others. (I trust that when you
vote – in any situation – it is for effective leadership not popular
opinion or personal gain.)

An article from Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal by Andy Stanley gives the following illustration:

In the World War II thriller U-571… submarine Lieutenant
Andy Tyler… is denied an opportunity to command his own sub. As it
turns out, it was his commanding officer, Captain Dahlgren, who
encouraged the navy not to promote him.

In a stirring exchange, Tyler challenges his superior officer’s
decision. He assures the captain he is qualified. Not only is he able
to perform every job on the sub, he goes on to insist that he would be
willing to lay down his life for any of the men on the crew.

At that point, Captain Dahlgren… says, “I’m not questioning your bravery. Are you willing to lay their lives on the line?”

Tyler is stunned by the question. Before he can respond, Captain Dahlgren continues;

“You see, you hesitate. As a captain you can’t. You have to act. If you
don’t you put the entire crew at risk. Now that’s the job. It’s not a
science. You have to be able to make the hard decisions based on
imperfect information, asking men to carry out orders that may result
in their deaths. And if you’re wrong, you suffer the consequences. If
you are not prepared to make those decisions, without pause, without
reflection, then you’ve got no business being a submarine captain.”

As Tyler leaves Captain Dahlgren’s quarters, the look on his face says
it all. Peering at leadership through that lens has caused him to doubt
his readiness to lead.

There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from this. For me the
standout exemplar lesson comes from Captain Dahlgren. He was prepared
to be “unpopular” with his 2IC – and the men who considered Tyler their
friend – rather than promote him to a position he was not ready for.
This is leadership, to be willing to make decisions that may cause you
to be unpopular.

The principal lesson of leadership that stands out is that one may be
willing to serve others, but are you willing to let others serve
regardless of the cost? Leadership is often about inspiring others to
go where they would normally not go. To cause them work harder, longer
and pay more than others. To inspire others to sacrificial service if
need be. To command a loyalty that gives you the right to challenge
others and the willingness to risk losing followers for the sake of the

Jesus demonstrated this type of leadership with his disciples. In John
6:53-71 Jesus’ words offended his disciples. In verse 66 we read: “From
this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed
him.” The popular position holder at this point would be inclined to
smooth over the problem and try to find a compromise, but not Jesus. He
turned to the twelve and said: “Do you want to leave to?” Jesus was not
voted into his position by his followers; he was a man of purpose who
called others to lay down their lives and join him in his great destiny.

Leadership is not about consensus nor friendship nor popularity; it is
about making the right decisions at the right time and accepting the
consequences regardless of popular opinion.

For me a good model of leadership versus popularity is found in Winston
Churchill’s political life. Just prior to and at the start of the
Second World War it was Neville Chamberlain who was the popular choice
to lead the British parliament. His policy of appeasement with Hitler
and Mussolini was popular at the time despite strong opposition from
Churchill and the resignation of Eden, Chamberlain’s foreign secretary.

Chamberlain engineered the Munich Pact in September 1938,
negotiating with Hitler to settle the question of Czechoslovakia. The
agreement signed by Britain, France, Italy and Germany gave the
Sudeten, a resource rich area of Czechoslovakia, (one-fifth of the
country on the German speaking border) to Germany with other areas
going to Hungary and Poland. Returning in triumph to Britain at Heston
Airport on September 30th, Chamberlain told a cheering crowd "I believe
it is peace in our time." Copyright ©2001 Britannia.com,

Eventually popular opinion failed and Britain found herself in the
midst of a war and the humiliating defeat of her troops in Norway.

The peace did not last long. Germany took the rest of
Czechoslovakia in March of 1938 and Chamberlain was cornered into
guaranteeing Poland against attack. When Germany invaded Poland Britain
declared war. The handwriting was on the wall. Chamberlain’s own party
rebelled against him, forcing his resignation after British forces
suffered defeat in Norway.  Copyright ©2001 Britannia.com,

At this time of national crisis a leader was needed – not a popular
position holder – so Churchill was called upon to form a coalition
government, which he did in May 1940, becoming its prime minister.

Churchill became the voice of Britain during the war, his
emotional speeches inspiring the nation to endure hardship and

Churchill was never a popular politician but he was an excellent leader
whom people called upon in a time of crisis. Churchill, like a true
leader, believed that his entire life was training for that particular
time. He had a sense of life-destiny and purpose.

I hope I have done justice to the concept of leaders versus popular
people. Popularity is not bad it is simply not the stuff of leaders.
Celebrities are example of popular people who have crowds wanting to
see them but that do not necessarily make the ideal choice for
leadership. (A line of reasoning that should be given more
consideration in democratic societies.) The point is that leaders are
not necessarily popular but they do lead and people do follow. If you
are a developing leader don’t think popularity is what qualifies you
for leadership.

In the words of General Colin Powell:

“Command is lonely”

Harry Truman was right. Whether you’re a CEO or the
temporary head of a project team, the buck stops here. You can
encourage participative management and bottom-up employee involvement,
but ultimately the essence of leadership is the willingness to make the
tough, unambiguous choices that will have an impact on the fate of the
organisation. I’ve seen too many non-leaders flinch from this
responsibility. Even as you create an informal, open, collaborative
corporate culture, prepare to be lonely. (General Colin Powell)

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