Women in Leadership: The Likability Factor

Do you know great female leaders with the "likability factor?"


Like many successful women in leadership positions, Stephanie Davis Smith, editorial director at Modern Luxury, has been told throughout her career, "If you want to be in charge, you have to get used to people not liking you." Don't believe it, Stephanie confides. Citing successful organizational leaders—both male and female—who inspire positive organizational culture, teamwork and loyal followers, Stephanie explains how she and many of her former bosses and colleagues have raised their level of leadership and continue to be "likable leaders." Stephanie is staying true to who she is while modeling leadership behavior for new and emerging leaders, encouraging them to continue to choose leaders who respect them and value their strengths.

So I think that I have a characteristic that I have to be liked by people or I want to be liked by people. So I've been told in my career many times that if you want to be in charge, if you want to be a CEO, the editor-in-chief of a magazine, you have to get used to people not liking you. And I found that to not be true at all because I want my staff to enjoy being around me.

I know there are great leaders like Howard Schultz from Starbucks, John Mackey from Whole Foods that their teams love them. And I don't think you have to be scary to be a leader and sometimes we are told that. And for people who want to be liked, that that's their characteristic, can be something that puts them off from taking leadership positions or stepping out in front to lead a team. I have had these experiences thinking, "Well, I'm not going with my gut, I would never write this in an email to somebody and if somebody sent it to me I would be very upset," and I don't think that's productive as a leader. So I've had those moments where I felt, "Wow, if I want to be in charge, I've got to get rid of this nice part of me and this wanting to be liked by my staff part of me to succeed in this business."

On the flipside of that, in New York, my first boss was the editor-in-chief of a fitness magazine and she was so well liked. She's still my mentor to this day and I think she was a lot like me. She wanted to be liked by her team. So she would go out of her way to give gifts when people did things well, she was cheerful, jovial in the hallways. Whereas if you see movies, famous movies like "The Devil Wears Prada," other people in that same building wouldn't even speak to you in an elevator. You weren't allowed to look at them the wrong way or anything like that. Those stories are true, by the way, and my boss was not that way at all. So I got to sit outside of her office and see how she behaved and I think when I think back, she allowed me to be my true self when I took over as an editor-in-chief.

So I want to model what I call "likable leadership" for my employees and hope that they respond to it, that it's successful in our company and also that they take it on where they go in their careers. I'm modeling behavior for them for their next step and the step after that and, hopefully, they choose leaders that also respect them and treat them well and all of that because I think that's part of being a likable leader, that people want to follow you.

Stephanie Davis Smith

Stephanie Davis Smith started an illegal newspaper at her middle school called "The Underground"—which was printed on copier paper stapled together—thus beginning her foray into the world of publishing, communications and audience dev...

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