Leadership: the Unpopularity Contest


Leadership: the Unpopularity Contest

When we think about great thought leaders, it’s typical for our minds to conjure up images of crowds attending conventions or Instagram accounts with 100K plus followers.

For outsiders looking in, it’s easy to view these leaders as the popular kids. I’ve often asked myself, “How do they do that? What do they have that I don’t?” Yes, the old comparison trap. Yet as I walk (and occasionally crawl) further down the entrepreneurial highway, the more I realise that leadership is less about popularity and more about voicing what’s unpopular in the hope that it impacts someone’s life for the greater good.

Let me explain. The other day I made my Mum cry. She’s going through a tough time, so I offered her my view on why I think she should take route x as opposed to the route she wanted to take, route y. When I first voiced my feelings to her, initially she was hurt and upset. She was quick to let me know I’d burst her bubble.

This exchange ended up in our shopping trip being cut short, and I went home with my tail between my legs. I felt deflated and saddened that I’d knocked her mood and spent the train ride home reflecting on what I’d said, and replaying what would’ve happened if I’d actually just kept my mouth shut. But I kept arriving back at the same point; I had to say those things because if I hadn’t, I would’ve been doing her a disservice. I did it because I love her!

She came back to my house a few hours later having re-grouped thanks to some retail therapy. As I made her a cup of tea, she told me that she’d been reflecting on our chat. She said, “Thank you, you brought a new and much-needed perspective into my thoughts, and even though I was upset at the time, I am really grateful that you said that. I know it must’ve been hard.”

Instantly a weight lifted. She was right, it wasn’t easy to say the things I had said, and in the short term, there was zero benefit for me to say what I did. Needless to say, I was so relieved and pleased that despite her initial reaction, I’d actually helped her gain clarity and confidence around this particular situation. It was visible that a weight had been lifted from her shoulders too. Later on that day, this experience got me to thinking about leadership and short term vs long term gains.

Often, it’s perceived that leaders voice what’s popular and that’s why everyone admires them.

I’ve seen first-hand people trying to be popular not really knowing that leadership is an unpopularity contest. Instead, leaders are admired for being courageous enough to challenge existing ways of thinking knowing full well that they’re likely to be met with resistance, not roses.

As a business coach, one my roles is to replace the easy path with the path that is best suited to my client’s mission and vision. Leadership is integral to this process because transformation can only occur when people accept change. Because this involves challenging people’s perspectives and asking questions that encourage people to:

  • Step into new ways of thinking.
  • Take control of their future.
  • Challenge the way they contribute to that future in their everyday lives.

Again, there are no pats on the back during these conversations or ‘sweaty yoga classes’, as Glennon Doyle puts it in her book, Love Warrior.

Leadership: The myths vs the reality.

Here’s what leadership isn’t:

  • You and your mates simulating a Hollywood high school drama with you being the head of the footy/cheerleading squad.
  • Everyone telling you how awesome you are all the time.
  • Telling everyone how awesome they are but secretly knowing they’re messing up but never helping them because there’s nothing immediate in it for you.
  • Expecting people to be like you.
  • Material accumulation.
  • Having it all figured out.

And here’s what leadership is:

  • A lonely path.
  • A practice in being vulnerable.
  • Learning to accept fear.
  • Trusting in yourself.
  • Embracing failure.
  • Being patient.
  • Not expecting instant gratification.

All in all, leadership is never about what you can get in the short term. Instead, it’s about what you can give in the long-term. Leaders become popular not because their viewpoints are popular but because of their ability to stand alone is admired and respected, so people look up to them.

So, the next time you hold back from saying something that’s unpopular, just remember, that once that moment passes, you will have paved the way for that person to consider a path that’s better for them. Your ability to be ok with being unpopular is your superpower, not your weakness.

As Marianne Williamson says,

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Now over to you, what’s your approach to leadership and how does it shape your business and life?

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  • Renee Hasseldine

    Hi Kelly. This is a great piece and I agree 100%. People who *think* leadership looks like popularity are sorely mistaken. It’s a tough slog and in some ways it’s a lot like parenting.

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