The Price of Deciding What’s Right versus What’s Popular

By Tom Davidson

On one of the rare times I’ve flown first class, I sat next to a Congressman on his way home from Washington, D.C. I asked him if he would be talking to his constituents on this visit, and he clarified. “No. This is my last trip. I was voted out of office.” Being curious, I asked him what happened after so many times being reelected, and his answer was thought-provoking about leadership decisions.

“The math caught up to me,” he answered. A bit confused, I asked what he meant by “the math.” He explained it this way:

Every time you vote on an issue, you make some people happy and some people mad. After you vote on enough issues, you eventually make everyone happy at some point and everyone mad at some point. The problem is that the one’s who were mad at some point remember that. The ones who you made happy at some point, forget about you.

It made sense in a sad way. But it also pointed out a fundamental lesson of leadership that we see played out in the daily news every day, leaders making unpopular decisions.

Neither the congressman nor everyday leaders like you and me are here to make people happy, at least not as our first priority. We’re here to do what we believe is the right thing for the organization; in the congressman’s case, that meant for his district and our country. In your case, that might mean your team, your department and your organization.

As a leader, you simply aren’t going to make everyone happy all the time, and after a while “the math” might catch up to you as well. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep making those hard decisions.

Keep in mind that it’s better to be respected than to be liked, the latter being a lucky but fleeting consequence of doing the right thing.

It’s your job, and it’s the nature of leadership.

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