The Popularity Problem

Do you believe as I do that transformational leadership is not possible when leaders value popularity above all else? Today, it seems to me there are far too many don’t rock the boat, don’t upset anyone types of leaders. Moses was often more than a little unpopular as he led Israel out of slavery and toward the Promised Land.

The Israelites learned soon after their departure that their journey to a better life would not be easy or comfortable. Early in the story we learn that after three days without water they arrived at Marah to find water that was bitter and not drinkable. Their response, “So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?'” (Exodus 15:24.) Moses cried out to God who in turn transformed the water. A little further into the journey, in the Desert of Sin, hunger and thirst aroused more grumbling. God responded with manna and quail. This time, testing Israel’s obedience by directing them to collect only enough for the day. Many failed the test to discover that the excess they had collected turned rancid over night. Throughout the book we see a pattern of hardship, grumbling and disobedience – a pattern not unfamiliar to today’s transformational leaders.

Every really effective leader soon discovers that the most important missions normally entail hardship. This is why all effective leaders accept that leadership is not a popularity contest. Doing what we believe God is calling us to do, that which is best for the mission and the people we lead, is often not what is easiest or most popular at the time. I experienced this as I led teams through a couple of difficult labour disputes that arose from periods of significant organizational change. To be sure, there were those who agreed and supported my efforts, but there were many others who opposed. There were many occasions when I chose a course that made me very unpopular.

Today I see far too many leaders who place popularity above all else. They don’t want anyone to be upset with them. One way this manifests is the plague of consensus management. Leaders from this school of thought won’t make a decision until they have found a path everyone agrees with. This always leads to truly impotent leadership and it robs teams of the opportunity to do something important. It always puts the Promised Land, however you may describe it in the mission you lead today, completely out of reach. The best leaders take their teams on missions that matter. Think Moses and the Exodus or Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem. There is always hardship, resistance and grumbling on a mission that matters. Often disobedience that must be dealt with if the mission is to succeed.

To be sure the best leaders are not autocrats, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22) I valued the advise of others as an essential part of my decision making process. All effective leaders value good advisers. This said, the time always comes to make the hard and often unpopular decisions that are always a big part of the journey to some place better. Then the most effective leaders have the courage to stay the course when the going gets tough. They are willing to pay the price, in at least temporary popularity, in pursuit of a much bigger prize for everyone on the journey. Interested in a group workshop or some individual coaching? Check out


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