The Happy Trap

The best leaders don’t make everyone happy. That may sound harsh to you – it may even sound wrong. It’s not intended to be rude or mean-spirited, and it doesn’t mean that great leaders try to make people unhappy. It’s just a byproduct of leading well.

This is a lesson I learned early in my career - one I could have easily missed. Like many young leaders, I didn’t invest a lot of time reflecting on my leadership style or philosophy – I was trying to learn to lead! One day, almost 25 years ago, the president of our company came into my office. That was a big deal. I had been with the company for almost 10 years, and I don’t recall him ever visiting my office before that day.
When he entered the room, I stood to greet him. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:
“Congratulations,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.” I paused. “Congratulations for what?”
“You’ve figured out something many leaders never understand, and you’ve discovered it early in your career.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, so I knew I needed to probe. “What’s that, sir?”
“You’ve learned that not everyone is going to be happy with your leadership, and you’ve decided that’s okay.”
Had he not pointed that out to me, I guess I could have missed it. My goal had always been to try to do the right thing. If I felt I had done so, I wasn't too worried about those who disagreed.
Let me be clear and say again, I don’t believe leaders TRY to make people unhappy; it’s just part of the role. Why is that the case? Here are five reasons – I’m sure there are more.
Leaders create change. Leaders understand that progress is always preceded by change. There will always be people who don’t like change, and they'll not be happy with us for instigating change.
Leaders make hard decisions that affect people’s lives. Sometimes we have to terminate an employee, close a business unit, stop funding for a project, or set a strategy that is not popular. These are activities leaders are paid to do that make people unhappy.
Leaders hold people accountable. To most leaders, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Unfortunately, many people see it as a huge negative. I prefer to think of accountability as a gift we give to those we lead, a gift that enables them to be successful.
Leaders stretch people and organizations. Leaders know that if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. Therefore, we often ask people to do things faster, cheaper, better, differently. But stretching creates discomfort, and many people aren’t happy to be stretched.
Leaders are unreasonable people. Leaders are compelled by a vision and fueled by the desire to see that vision become a reality. Leaders live much of our lives thinking about what could be, an orientation that often creates an "unreasonable" view of the world.
So, what are the implications for us as leaders? My advice: Don’t be surprised if there are always some people who are unhappy with you. And if no one’s unhappy with you as a leader, perhaps you should be unhappy with yourself.[GLS_Shield]

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Choosing to lead well « QSchwengel

10 years ago

[...] read the rest of his thoughts on this, go to The Happy Trap 34.261284 -85.169330 Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted in [...]

The Happy Trap « Arshad Parvez

10 years ago

[...] It’s just a byproduct of leading well. This is a lesson I learned early in my [...]… [click link for complete article] Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

Steve Thomas

10 years ago

Great thoughts. I think most of us want to please so much that we have to be reminded of this truth.
Thanks for that.


10 years ago

Mark, This is a big issue with those who lead in ministry (pastors). Many times there is a false guilt placed upon pastors who don't make their congregations "happy" that may not be there in the business leadership situation. The addition of the spiritual dimension to this issue can compound the problem for a leader who struggles with "people pleasing"...especially in church situations when the people you are attempting to stretch and grow are in direct relation to your livelihood (salary, career).
Interestingly, those who have achieved success as pastors/ministry leaders (by success I mean doing what God has called you to do...not simply numeric growth) have overcome this "happy trap" by being clear about casting a vision and communication of that vision to those who will make it happen. I loved how you worded it, "doing the right thing and not worrying too much about those who disagree." Pastors/Ministry leaders can learn from this post! Thanks for sharing.

Jason Stewart

10 years ago

Thank you for the insight! I am planning to read this post weekly for the next season of my leadership. I your thoughts to shape my current projects and leadership. I know as I read it weekly, there will be new pieces that will jump off the screen and lead to action steps.
I also recently watched your "Value Results and Relationships" post. I loved the principle. I relate it to need as leaders to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4). I am looking for more content on how to intently live this out in my own leadership and equip others to do the same. Could you point me to some of your own content or others for specific principles, tools or how tos. Thanks, Jason.


10 years ago

Jason, thanks for your comment! I'm glad you found the post helpful. Regarding other "how-to" resources, I don't have any to recommend at this time. If I find any that may prove helpful, I'll let you know. Please call on me if I can serve you or your church in the future. Mark

Nathan Magnuson

10 years ago

Mark - great insight, and especially great closing line. One example of a recent hard decision was Marissa Mayer shutting down the work from home opportunity at Yahoo. That one was pretty unpopular, but looks like it was an attempt to improve accountability. I'm taking from your post that if a leader isn't willing to make an unpopular decision, he or she isn't really leading.

Great Leaders Serve | By Mark Miller | Today’s Challenge: Getting Off to a Fast Start

7 years ago

[…] Your goal is not to make people angry – it is to lead with all diligence. If you work to make everyone happy or you’ll work yourself out of a […]


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