• WSL Leadership

How Popular Leaders Actually Survive the Fury of Unpopular Decisions


One match about to light another.
Photo: Alec Gnomes

Let’s suppose you’re you are (or want to be) both a popular leader and a good one. Being a good leader means sometimes your good decisions are unpopular.


You knew it was inevitable, and now it’s happening - your teammates are not happy with your decision. And that’s ok because you are ready for this situation.


You prepared by getting crystal clear on your values -- your actual, every-day, lived-them-so-long-they’re-habits values. You are also aware of the aspirational values you want to add to your life but aren’t a consistent part of your everyday actions. You are probably also aware of some things called “situational values” -- also known as “not actually your values.”


For example, your personal value may be respect; your choices show respect every day and respect is at the top of your mind when you have a decision to make.


Maybe honesty is an aspirational value for you because you know that you bend the truth at times (always for a good cause, of course), but the best reasons in the world don’t make deception into reality. Honesty is something you aspire to do more often as a habit, but you’re not consistent about it right now.


A situational personal value, for example, could be integrity -- it’s something present sometimes guiding your decisions, and you tell people it’s essential to you. Still, you are aware there are times when other priorities take over, and integrity goes by the wayside, and you’re fine with that. I don’t think you can have integrity *except in certain situations* and still have anyone believe that it is one of your guiding personal values.


Your personal values get solidified through sharing them and your actions. Thinking you have them is nice (and perhaps aspirational) but sharing them with other folks on your team and then acting in a way that is consistent with your values is what builds trust. Trust is the source of leadership power -- without it, you’re not going to get much done, and you’re certainly not going to have a team that is willing to invest themselves in your vision or projects.


We all know we’re not machines that are 100% perfect -- we make mistakes, we make bad choices, we mess up. It matters when your actions don’t align with those personal values you shared. Mistakes can be a tremendously trust-damaging moment. Or they can be a moment for being accountable and emotionally intelligent in your leadership -- which is hugely trust-building (even though you did mess something up).


So you’ve gotten clear on your personal values. They are known to your team and consistent when you act and make decisions. When you act in a way not aligned with your values, you address the situation and own those actions. Now you’re ready for the unpopular decisions.


If folks are clear on your values and trust you because you act in alignment with them, your unpopular decision might be one where they don’t have the information to realize how this decision aligns with your values and team goals. Maybe you need to inform or educate them.


If they don’t like your values or don’t share them that’s ok too! There are plenty of ways to meet team goals while approaching them with different personal values. Maybe you need to remind them that you’re all on the same team, and one of a team’s strengths is each person’s unique perspective.


If the response to “I don’t like that unpopular decision” is “It aligns with my values and supports our team goals,” a fascinating discussion opens up. There may not be agreement, but there is space for connection, validation and ultimately respect.


Unpopular decisions aligned with your personal values and moving the team toward shared goals can be a great conversation starter. Those moments shift from being clouded with despair to moments that strengthen connection and deepen trust. Taking the time to be very, very clear on your personal values (the ones you actually live every day) and sharing them with your team goes a long way to prepare everyone for those inevitable unpopular decisions.



[Looking for more tools to support your leadership? Check out this Emotionally Intelligent Conflict Management Checklist I made. I think you might like it, and use it.]