Are You Liked, Respected or Really Useful?

There’s a conversation that typically happens at some point in leadership training for military officers about whether it’s better to be liked or respected as a leader. That is, do you want your people to enjoy your presence and to feel some sort of emotional attachment to you? Or do you want them to hold you in high regard for your abilities and behavior? 

It’s a good conversation because it highlights a natural tension that exists when you’re in charge of people. On one hand, being liked is a source of power in and of itself. People don’t like working for jerks. On the other hand, being in a supervisory position often requires one to make hard decisions that may not sit well with some people, and if your goal is to make your people like you, it could affect your judgment and behavior negatively. 

There’s no right answer, although sometimes I’ve noticed (at least in my own life in how I understood things and acted as a young leader) that in the military the “liked” versus “respected” distinction is treated too frequently as a strict dichotomy. It’s either one or the other. 

In reality, though, I see this as an “and” proposition. It’s possible—even, dare I say, ideal—to be both. 

But the bigger problem is that pursuing either being liked or respected as goals is a fool’s errand. It’s kind of like pursuing happiness. These are outcomes—ends, not means—and they emerge from a variety of factors related to your behavior and how you develop relationships. 

That’s where I think there’s another goal that’s clearer and more worthy of pursuit: Being really useful. 

And the academic part of me requires that I give credit where credit is due for that idea. It may seem ridiculous, but this is an idea that’s a central premise in Thomas & Friends

Yes, I’m referring to the children’s show about a group of trains, and the protagonist is a blue engine named Thomas. The engines encounter various challenges in their daily work, and Thomas sometimes gets himself into tough situations that have to get resolved through teamwork and other types of problem-solving and conflict management. 

But if you watch just a few episodes, you’ll realize that there’s a goal underlying everything in the show. It’s subtly (and sometimes overtly) suggested as an engine’s raison d'être. It’s their reason for existence, and it’s an achievement to be celebrated. 

That characteristic is being a Really Useful Engine. There’s even a song about it. 

In the lyrics, you’ll notice that being really useful—helping other people with their work while at the same time performing your own job at a high level of competence—wins the approval of both one’s supervisor and coworkers. 

So instead of focusing on necessarily trying to be liked or respected, I think it’s a good idea to focus instead on being really useful for the people around us, for our teams, for our organizations. Being really useful has numerous implications for behavior. If you’re trying to be really useful, you’re necessarily going to do things like:

  • Build relationships and listen to people,
  • Learn what people or your organization need,
  • Work to solve other people’s problems—useful endeavors, not just enjoyable tasks,
  • Seek feedback from others and  
  • Continually build and expand your own competence.

If you do those sorts of things, either as a leader of other people or as an individual contributor, I’m fairly sure that both liking and respect will follow. 

Hey, it works for Thomas. And he is, after all, “The Really Useful Engine that we adore!” 
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: