The Overly Likable Boss

Improvement starts with feedback from the front line,” Peter Drucker wrote. Sometimes literally: Abraham Lincoln got better at picking generals by getting feedback from the front line.

But it wasn’t easy. In a new post at the HBR BlogRobert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan consider an interview with Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin in which Goodwin floated the idea that Lincoln’s people skills may have gotten in the way of his management.

“Lincoln’s greatest flaw came out of his strength, which was generally liking people and not wanting to hurt them,” Goodwin explained. In particular, Lincoln stuck with General George McClellan despite McClellan’s repeated failures on the battlefield and McClellan’s personal disdain for the president.

Image by: PingNews
Image by: PingNews

According to Kaiser and Kaplan, too many bosses are similarly reluctant to find fault with subordinates, even though such qualms hurt the organization. Managers should “wake up to the value of the antithesis of a strong people orientation — tough-mindedness about people,” they assert.

Drucker would have agreed. “A manager who pretends that the personal needs of the subordinate for affection . . . rather than the objective needs of the task, determine what should be done, would not only be a poor manager; no one would—or should—believe him,” he wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “All he does is to destroy the integrity of the relationship and with it the respect for his person and his function.”

What Drucker viewed as essential in a manager was integrity, not likability.

“There is tremendous stress these days on liking people, helping people, getting along with people, as qualifications for a manager,” Drucker noted in The Practice of Management. “These alone are never enough. . . . The one contribution he is uniquely expected to make is to give others vision and ability to perform. It is vision and moral responsibility that, in the last analysis, define the manager.”

What role do you think likability should play in management?