Leading With Excellence—Even When Your Followers Don't Like You

How do you lead when people don't like you?
How do you lead when people don't like you? (Pexels)

Don't underestimate the significance of whether or not the people you lead like you.

Respect and trust are essential, but without the foundation of a positive relationship, leadership becomes very difficult.

Every time we hire someone at 12Stone Church, I ask the supervisor this question about the candidate they just interviewed, "So, what did you think?" Their first response is always, "Well, I liked her." Then they go into the details. Or, the initial reaction is: "You know, I didn't really like him." It always starts with relationships. Always.

John Maxwell makes this abundantly clear in his book, The 5 Levels of Leadership. Level 2 is all about people giving permission to lead them because of good relationships. John says, at level 2, people follow you because they like you.

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Again, yes, there is much more to leading. You must also produce results. But I've watched this happen hundreds of times. Every leader hits a batting slump at some point or another. And when they do, the quality of their relationships is quickly revealed.

  • If the relationships are good, the people want you to succeed. They will support and help you.
  • If the relationships are poor, the people will let you lose. They might even help you lose if the relationship has deteriorated.
Let me state two assumptions for the context of this article:

Assumption #1 – You have a small number of people you are responsible to lead who don't like you.

Assumption #2 – This person(s) does not have intentional malice toward you. That's another topic entirely. This post focuses on any key leader that seems to have negative chemistry with you.

1. Accept the reality that not everyone will like you.

I trust that you understand not everyone will like you. That's OK. Accepting this fact helps you remain true to yourself. It helps prevent you from changing your personality or becoming a people-pleaser. And the truth is, people like you best when you are the real you.

Not everyone you lead will be your best friend. But some will be key leaders with whom you need to have positive relationship, and that requires you to lead through this difficulty.

You need to enjoy the relationship and get along so you can advance the mission together.

2. Ask yourself two tough questions.

Question #1 – Does this relational speed bump seem to be an isolated situation, or are there several people who don't seem to enjoy a relationship with you?

If it's just one person, that is, of course, good news and you can focus on cultivating that relationship. If there are several, and this is critical, you need to get some coaching before you attempt to repair the relationships. If relationships have gotten away from you to the point of involving multiple people, it's possible that the situation might get worse without some help. Find someone you trust and respect, and get some good coaching.

Question #2 – What are you doing, or not doing, that contributes to the breakdown of what would otherwise be a good relationship?

It takes two to tango, but as the leader, it starts with you. How do you need to grow as a leader to enhance the relationship?

3. Make sure you love before you lead.

I'm confident you love the people you lead, but that doesn't mean you show it and they know it. You may show you love them, but not in a way they receive it.

The pace of ministry leadership is often fast. That reality combined with the pressure to get things done can squeeze out the foundation of all good relationships, which is love. And for leaders, loving means giving more than you take. If you're not careful, the pressure to produce will cause you to take more than you give.

When you are yourself, and give more than you take, people will trust you. If they trust you, they will follow you. I can almost guarantee that the individual who doesn't like you, doesn't feel loved by you. And if that is the case, they will never let you lead them.

There are many things you can't control, but you can love everyone. Start there. Love is active, not passive. It takes intentional effort to communicate it to those you lead and extra effort to show it to a key leader who doesn't seem to like you. (Review 1 Cor. 13:4-8).

4. Have the honest conversation.

I'm surprised by how often leaders tell me their story of a difficult relationship, and the two of them have never sat down to talk. They haven't had the honest conversation to work things out. They just tell their allies the story!

Waiting doesn't make the relationship better. Give the person a call and have the conversation.

If you've already had a conversation, and it didn't seem to help, get some wisdom from a trusted leader and try again. If that doesn't work, agree to have a third person meet with you.

Remember, this isn't a popularity contest. Not everyone will naturally be drawn to you, but among these close insiders and influencers, it's important to do everything you can to develop a positive relationship.

Above all, don't power up, get defensive and seek allies to your side. Assume the best in them!

5. Invest deeply.

The practice of developing people applies to everyone you lead, and in particular for those you struggle to lead. It's human nature to pull away from those who don't like you. If they are key team players, you need to lean in. You can't force a relationship, but you can invest in it.

In my book, Amplified Leadership, the first three skills I discuss, connecting, appreciating and encouraging, make up the foundational core to all good relationships. If you think more on this subject might be helpful, get a copy and dig in. These three skills will greatly help you invest in those you lead.

We've all been there. Over the course of time, there are a few key leaders, (staff and volunteers), with whom you just can't seem to connect, but here's the good news. It's nearly always true that with some intentional effort and honest conversation, you can turn it around and enjoy a positive and productive relationship.

Dan Reiland is the executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as executive pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as vice president of leadership and church development at INJOY.

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