The other day I came across a product manager job description that talked about the need to make unpopular decisions (and to defend them). This is also an idea used by politicians, though they tend to talk more about making “tough decisions”. It’s only when we ask why the decisions are tough that we realise it’s because it makes the politician unpopular. In both cases being able to make—and stick to, or defend—an unpopular decision is regarded as evidence of leadership.
This is respectable enough. But do certain decisions have to be unpopular? If we’re demonstrating leadership by making unpopular decisions, are we demonstrating more leadership if we make decisions that are more unpopular? Does it follow that the greatest leaders are those who make the least popular decisions…?
Unpopular decisions can be made palatable. If we think a decision is the right one we should be able to explain why, and if we can explain it effectively then it becomes less unpopular. This is a test of our skills of communication and persuasion. Surely the greatest leaders are great communicators and adept at persuading. Having people support something now that they might have opposed before is a subtle mark of an effective operator. Political history is full of examples of leaders who have turned public opinion in their favour, though the ends and means are not always ethical.
Making an unpopular decision and defending it robustly may be considered a demonstration of leadership. But winning more support for the same decision is a greater, if less visible, demonstration of leadership.