Leadership vs Likership: No one wants to be led by a jerk

“We need leadership, not likership” is a common catchphrase among many military organisations. Based on the premise that the desire to be liked is inherent in our nature, this statement left me conflicted, particularly noting that my personal experience within the military weighs preference to working for likable commanders. As such, I set out on an endeavour to better understand likership and its applicability to leadership in the military organisation.

Research shows an important link between likability and subordinate leader ratings indicating that likership and leadership are not mutually exclusive. Despite this research, military organisations denounce likership because it can blur the lines between friendship and authority, affect decision making, and reduce authenticity; however, these risks can be mitigated. Military organisations should therefore cease the negative likership narrative and embrace the concept that good leaders are likable and that likership enhances leadership.

The validity of likability in relation to leadership has been established through several studies. Brown & Keeping in 2005, identified a significant relation between likability and the five dimensions of transformational leadership.[i] Another two studies found that likability accounted for more than sixty percent of the reasoning behind subordinate leader ratings with direct correlation to trust and charisma.[ii],[iii] The collection of studies supports that likability should not be disregarded from military leadership.

The absence of a definition of likership results in likership literature attracting negative connotations. Paul Chappell defines likership as “doing what is popular in order to be liked – with no concern for whether your actions are right or wrong”.[iv] The negativity in this definition fails to capture the importance of leader liking in affecting subordinate positive or negative judgements and the effectiveness of charisma, trust and likability.[v],[vi] A more positive definition of likership for military organisations would therefore be the cultivation of leader behaviours that establish likability to positively affect subordinates.

“the more liked a leader becomes the more there becomes a tendency to blur the lines of friendship and authority”

Despite the validity of likability, military organisations remain wary of the likership risks; however, these risks can be mitigated. The first risk is that “the more liked a leader becomes the more there becomes a tendency to blur the lines of friendship and authority”.[vii] This risk is mitigated through leader-member exchange, the principles of which remind “leaders to be fair and equal in how they approach each of their followers”.[viii] The responsibility of ensuring the boundaries between friendship and authority are not crossed rests with a leader who is committed to leading the organisation impartially and fairly.

A further risk is the desire to be liked impacting decision-making. Greg Mowbray believes that likership results in followers supporting the leader simply because they like them.[ix] As a result, the followership is fragile as an unpopular decision dissolves the leader’s likability. This concept ignores the substance behind likability; that being the character the leader has already displayed to gain respect and trust to mitigate this risk.[x] Military organisations should take advantage of the likable leader being a more successful decision-maker than the hated leader.

Military organisations remain concerned that likership reduces authenticity when leaders work too hard to establish an image that the group may find attractive. In altering their persona to be more likable, they risk compromising their authenticity, “gradually becoming less honest, less natural” and less themselves.[xi] Authentic leadership mitigates this risk through the component of self-awareness that ensures “a strong anchor for decisions and actions”.[xii] Military organisations would benefit from coaching future leaders on improving self-awareness to avoid compromising their authenticity.

Military organisations consist of a vast array of leaders applying various leadership theories, but inherent in every theory is an element of likability. It therefore cannot be denied that likership is an essential aspect of leadership and through considered application, it serves as a fundamental component of the leadership model for military organisations.


[i] Douglas J. Brown and Lisa M. Keeping, ‘Elaborating the construct of transformational leadership: The role of affect,’ The Leadership Quarterly 16, no. 2 (2005): 267. Note: The five dimensions of transformational leadership identified as being idealized influence attributes, idealized influence behaviours, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration

[ii] Mark J. Martinko, Jeremy D. Mackey, Sherry E. Moss, Paul Harvey, Charn P. McAllister, and Jeremy R. Brees, ‘An Exploration of the Role of Subordinate Affect in Leader Evaluations,’ Journal of Applied Psychology 103, no. No. 7 (2018): 739.

[iii] S.J. Wayne and G.R. Ferris, ‘Influence tactics, affect, and exchange quality in supervisor-subordinate interactions: A laboratory experiment and field study,’ Journal of Applied Psychology 75, no. 5 (1990); J. Lewter and R.G. Lord, Affect, self-schemas, and transformational leadership, Academy of Management Convention (Las Vegas, NV1992, August).

[iv] P.K. Chappell, The Art of Waging Peace: A Strategic Approach to Improving Our Lives and the World (Easton Studio Press, LLC, 2013).

[v] Charn P. McAllister, ‘Leadership or Likership?,’ accessed on 30 July 2018,  https://leadersatwork.northeastern.edu/management/leadership-or-likership/

[vi] V. Seyranian, ‘Social identity framing communication strategies for mobilizing social change,’ The Leadership Quarterly 25, no. 3 (2014): 469.

[vii] Robert J. Mareno, ‘Leadership vs “Likership”,’ accessed on 24 July 2018,  https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leadership-vs-likership-robert-mareno

[viii] Peter G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, Seventh ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2016), 146.

[ix] Greg Mowbray, ‘Are You Choosing Leadership or ‘Likership’?,’ accessed on 24 July 2018,  http://gregmowbray.com/are-you-choosing-leadership-or-likership/

[x] Warren Bennis, ‘The Leadership Advantage,’ Leader to Leader Spring (1999).

[xi] Sean Grover, ‘How “Wanting to Be Liked” Gets You Rejected,’ accessed on 25 July 2018,  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/when-kids-call-the-shots/201702/how-wanting-be-liked-gets-you-rejected

[xii] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, 203.

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