Leaders should do what is right - not what is popular

It is your job to be successful and fair, not to keep everyone happy, says Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

I was bathing my two young sons the other night when the subject of religion cropped up.

Seven-year-old Jake firmly asserted that he believed in God and Jesus - even if he thinks the latter is called "Cheese-us", which causes some confusion in his mind as to which came first, cheese or the man.

But when I asked my five-year-old, Monty, whether he believed in God, he replied: "No. I don't like a fat man with a white beard sitting on a cloud telling me what to do." This presented an opportunity to discuss gender in theocracy and the theosophical notion of free will in the Judeo-Christian tradition: but instead I just said "OK", reached for the shampoo and imposed my will on Monty's hair, much to his protest.

Consistent standards

It's the same if you're the boss at work. Have you ever noticed how you can manage different people using consistent standards, yet cause greatly varying opinions as to how well they think they are being managed? Or how you can provide people with the same management service from one year to the next, yet get different reactions at different times?

I don't advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to managing people. But even if you are adaptable to different people or changing circumstances, you will still go in and out of fashion among your staff.

There's a very good reason for this. While it is entirely right always to manage sensitively, communicate well and seek regular feedback, in the end it is your job to be successful and fair, not to keep everyone happy. Sometimes this means tackling hugely unpopular issues head on for the sake of the greater good, such as redundancies, service cuts or staff disciplinaries. If you want popularity, don't be a leader - be a children's entertainer instead.

Vagaries of popularity

Many years ago I interviewed an immensely wise businessman, the late Sir John Harvey-Jones, about leadership. A former naval intelligence expert, Harvey-Jones carved out a brilliant career in business as chairman of ICI. With his larger-than-life character, long hair and colourful taste in ties, he was a television producer's dream and found fame in the 1990s as the star of Troubleshooter, a now much-copied documentary format in which he gave advice to ailing businesses.

I asked him about the vagaries of popularity as a boss. Despite being known as a kind and compassionate leader, his response was unhesitating: when you have taken the right soundings and made and explained what you believe to be the right decisions, as an employer you must then "let the chips fall where they may".

A bit like parenting, I suppose. You try to do what you believe to be right for your children, pass on good values and explain life's options. But in the end, each one of them will believe what they want.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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