With Martin G. Moore

Episode #206

It’s STILL Respect Before Popularity: An update on your favorite episode

The very first episode that we decided to lead out with on the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast was Respect Before Popularity! We figured that, if we only ever released one episode, we wanted to expose leaders to this concept, above all others. And it turns out that it’s actually still our most popular episode.

So today, I want to revisit that very first episode, and give you an updated version that’s even more accessible… Let’s face it, my delivery in those early episodes was pretty sh!t 😂

But that aside, we’ve had an incredible number of leaders contact us to tell us how much of a difference the principle of respect before popularity has made to them, both personally and professionally.

In this episode, as well as recapping the original concepts, I take a deeper dive into the psychological and emotional drivers of conflict aversion, and bring a new perspective on what it takes to win respect.

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Episode #206 It’s STILL Respect Before Popularity: An update on your favorite episode

When Em first came to me with her vision for the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, I did the math. How many episodes were there in this concept? How many topics did I think I could talk about for 15 to 20 minutes in a way that brought real value to leaders at all levels? But then I had a terrible thought… What if no one listens? If we didn’t find an audience, we at least needed to know one thing: that we’d put out some high value content that’s guaranteed to help any leader who picks it up. This was our no regrets move.

The worst case scenario was that we’d get some high quality leadership content out into the world. But when we started, not knowing whether the concept would last, we decided to put some of the most critical topics first. Things that would stand the test of time and be an invaluable guide for any leader who made the effort to listen.

Fast forward almost four years, and we’re now approaching 3 million downloads of the podcast in over a hundred countries – but we weren’t to know that at the time, so we put a fair bit of thought into which topics we covered. There’s some real gold to mine amongst those first 30 or 40 episodes. They deal with many of the fundamentals of leadership that you won’t hear about in the virtue-signaling world of desirable leadership attributes.

If that stuff helps you to lead better, then I’m genuinely happy for you. For me though, listening to that fluffy motivational stuff is like eating an air sandwich. There’s no substance. So even though I might feel good for a fleeting moment, I’m still strangely empty. That’s why the episode we decided to lead out with in No Bullsh!t Leadership was Respect Before Popularity – no fluff there! And if we only released one episode, we wanted to be sure that leaders were exposed to this concept above all others.


I opened our very first episode with my favorite quote from Casey Stengel, the iconic major league baseball manager because it goes to the heart of the concept. He said, “The secret of leading people is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are still undecided.” Stengel’s point is that when you take on a leadership role, not being liked simply comes with the territory. If you don’t accept it, there’s very little chance that you’ll be able to lead competently. You can fool yourself that your need to be liked isn’t driving you, but it always comes out in the unavoidable symptoms:

  • Procrastination

  • Lack of clarity

  • Low standards

  • Lack of value delivery

  • Mediocre team capability and performance

Worse than all of this though, is that if you’re hostage to your need to be liked, this will rob your people of the opportunity for them to improve.

So many areas of leadership are riddled with conflict. They require you to put respect first because your popularity will always be at risk. Think about building your team’s capability… If you aren’t prepared to challenge, coach and confront your people, you can’t lift their performance. The results you’re able to achieve will be determined purely by people’s individual professionalism, capability, and work ethic, which is going to be patchy at best.

If you shy away from capability building, your team is going to be weak, your people won’t grow, and you’ll rationalize all of this by saying that you are keeping your people happy. In fact, subconsciously, you are just feeding your own need to be liked.

Think about negotiating, this is an adversarial construct by its very nature. The ability to sit comfortably in conflict is essential. Negotiation is not just about tactics and technique, although you must have that too. The thing that separates the good negotiators from the great negotiators is the ability to maintain extreme clarity and composure in a high conflict scenario. But if you’re sitting there wanting to be liked, you’ll never be able to push the boundaries of the deal–to find where the real value lies.

Think about trying to improve your team’s culture and performance. Is your team too polite? Of course,  it’s important that people treat each other with respect and dignity, but quite often the appearance of politeness is nothing more than a cover for a passive/defensive culture. People don’t contribute fearlessly, and they’ll say it’s because of respect for the other people in the team. But if they really respected them, they’d tell them the truth. They would challenge their teammates – respectfully, of course – to help them improve their understanding and perspective. But there’s conflict in this, and it’s so much easier to avoid, right?

Putting the need to be liked ahead of the need for respect is also a killer for diversity. Why? Well, because you can put whoever you want into a seat. That doesn’t bring any value at all per se. In fact, sometimes it actually creates problems if the other people on the team believe the appointment wasn’t made on the basis of merit. The value in diversity only comes when you can liberate that diversity of thinking and experience in the day-to-day interactions in your team… to create a culture where people are confident to put their views on the table, debate those views, and wrestle the issues to ground.

Constructive tension is an essential ingredient of performance. At this point in the original episode, I share one of my favorite lines, and it has become a bit of a ‘Martyism’ over time. As I used to say to my direct reports, “You have to bring something different to the table. If you think the same as I do, then at least one of us is redundant… and it’s probably not me.” 

By this stage of the episode, I was pretty much on a roll. I gave the example of how the need to be liked affects your ability to communicate to your workforce. Try speaking in front of a hostile crowd in a Town Hall-style meeting at a blue collar industrial site. You are speaking to a heavily unionized workforce whose belief system is founded on skepticism, distrust, and the belief that at any given time, management is somehow trying to screw the workers.

If you are focused on your need to be liked, as opposed to what your audience needs to hear, you will hate that experience and you’ll avoid delivering the hard messages. You have to be strong enough to interact, to take questions from the floor and to stand firm, knowing that your job isn’t to be liked. It’s to communicate the important messages to your people. You may not be liked, but if you want to get anywhere, you have to be respected.


I’ve learned in the last few years that the problem of conflict aversion is every bit as widespread as I’ve found in my own corporate experience. But leaders come to work with their game face on, so it’s not always obvious that they have a problem. And because human beings are so proficient at rationalizing virtually everything, it’s easy for those leaders to create a plausible excuse for avoiding any potential conflict.

I also gave some indicators to recognize if the leaders below you were conflict averse, such as:

  • An unwillingness to address their people’s performance issues

  • Being slow to make decisions

  • Exhibiting extreme stress when challenged or questioned

  • Rationalization for lack of action, which of course comes in a hundred different flavors.

I went on to give a few suggestions for getting over the need to be liked – the psychological and emotional hacks, if you will:

  • 1. Focus on the results you want, which gives you an external focus.

  • 2. Focus on openness and transparency. I know this is getting dangerously close to virtue signaling, but if you have a tendency to openness and transparency and you value it highly, it’ll often overcome that urge to just be liked.

  • 3. Focus on your duty of care to your people.

  • 4. Focus on giving feedback, because it’s a gift.

These are some of the foundations for getting into the mindset of Respect Before Popularity, and I haven’t changed any of these views since I recorded that first episode. But, what I will say – to generalize this principle a little bit more – is if you focus on other people, rather than yourself, this is going to be the key to overcoming your need to be liked.

I wound up Episode 1 with a daily reflection discipline that I’ve used for many years, and this is the tool that I used to keep myself honest and to lift my own self-awareness. In fact, it’s a great way to make sure that you don’t believe your own bullsh!t, as so many leaders do.

Download your copy of the Daily Reflection Questions and listen to Episode #1: Respect Before Popularity here.


Why is it such a challenge to get over the need to be liked? Well, it’s programmed into all of us. It’s part of our DNA and it’s controlled by our reptilian brain. It’s an instinctive response. Back in the day, it was all about survival. If you were cast out of the tribe, you wouldn’t survive very long. Your fundamental need for safety was satisfied by belonging to the tribe. Now, we’re saying that to be a competent leader, you have to overcome that basic evolutionary drive.

It’s at the foundation of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Until your physiological needs and the feelings of security and safety are satisfied, you’ll never be able to meet your higher order needs. It’s the fundamental reason for why we do a lot of what we do. It’s even responsible for some of the social constructs we’ve created over the centuries. Some of the behavioral differences between men and women can be traced back to this evolutionary truth – that doesn’t mean it’s right, it just is. Suffice to say the need to be liked is such an ingrained part of who we are as humans, that it takes real effort to manage. We never truly overcome the need for positive regard and acceptance, but we can manage it in a way that puts Respect Before Popularity.

Putting Respect Before Popularity takes empathy. It means you have to care about your people more than your own minor discomfort – your fear, your apprehension, and your awkwardness. Isn’t it ironic that the road to effective empathy winds its way straight through the mire of conflict, challenge and accountability? But once you understand the true power of leadership and how much impact it can have on those you lead, you can begin to think about putting their wellbeing ahead of any of the implications for you personally, which will be immaterial in comparison. So think about this fact and use the mantra:

“There’s no real danger to me. I’m just allowing my reptilian brain to drive me. The short term risk of not being liked is way lower than the long-term detriment to me and the people around me if I don’t step into this conflict willingly. I have to be respected to get this job done, but being liked is optional. I have a job to do.” 

Then of course, once you understand this principle and really believe it deep down, that gets shortened to: Respect Before Popularity.

Now, returning to the concept of leaders demonstrating their conflict aversion by inaction. It can actually be harder to identify than you might expect, it’s a little counterintuitive. Someone who’s frozen in leadership inaction, because of their fear of not being liked, is sometimes the busiest leader on your team. Really? How can someone be frozen and busy at the same time?

It’s because they bury themselves in ‘busywork’: they take on more than they can physically cope with. They never have time to do the things that are most required of leaders–to maximize the value that can be achieved with the resources that the organization’s entrusted to them, particularly the people. Instead, they keep their dance cards so full with ‘stuff’ that they simply don’t have time for the things that are most time consuming: the hard work of leadership. They rationalize that what they’re doing is more important than leading their people. When you see that leader, don’t be fooled by their frantic work ethic. That too, can be an avoidance tactic.


Let’s be clear, you’re not setting out to be unpopular or disliked. This is really about where you focus and where your emphasis lies. More often than not, respect and popularity coexist quite nicely. But here’s the interesting thing: if you set out to be liked as your primary goal, it’s hard to win respect. You’ll generally present as being weak, indecisive, malleable and avoidant. These aren’t the foundations that build respect in people, and certainly not in leaders.

If you set out to be respected, on the other hand, it’s likely that many people will grow to like you over time. Doing the things that people see as selfless is probably the most reliable path to respect. If self-interest dominates your thinking, your actions and your decisions, people are going to find it really hard to respect you.


Operating without self-interest is incredibly difficult. It’s another one of those areas where you’re going to find yourself swimming against the current of your fundamental human nature. Self-interest is really hard to override because it’s built into your autopilot, but I’ve got two really cool hacks for this:

1. Think about your self-interest as both a short-term and a long-term proposition

What’s best for us in the short term and what’s best for us in the long term, may be vastly different. In the short term, I want to spend my afternoon drinking a six pack of beer by the pool so that I can just chill out. That would make me happy, relaxed, and fulfilled – today. But if I do that every day for a year, I’ll be fat, I’ll be ignorant and I’ll probably be getting skin cancers cut out of my arms and legs. Humans aren’t particularly good at weighing short-term versus long-term benefits, but it’s so critical to so many facets of leadership.

2. Before you make a decision, ask yourself the question: What if my life actually depended on making the right decision here?

What would I need to do now? In Leadership Beyond the Theory, I share my strategies on how to overcome self-interest in the decision making process. It is the ultimate test, and one sure way to eliminate the allure of short-term self-interest. The right decision may, or may not be in your own short-term self-interest, and it may also carry some personal risk. But if you believe in the fact that doing the right thing is rewarded in the longer term, this is going to sit pretty comfortably with you.

Learn how to reframe any situation to enable a long-term view with Episode #29: Winning Without Self-Interest

Once you’ve worked out how to reduce or eliminate self-interest, you can back it up with the other important leadership characteristics: fallibility, transparency, integrity, and so forth. Now, in this context, these aren’t just virtue signals because you can’t fake them. They’re not attributes that you should strive to develop in order to be a great leader. On the contrary, they’re actually outcomes of strong leadership.

If you continue to do the work of leadership, learning to put Respect Before Popularity and doing hard things, when they need to be done, you will naturally develop these characteristics over time. But you can’t start with those unless you have the foundations of strong leadership, because your people will see through it a mile away. They might even like you, but guess what? They will never respect you.


  • Ep. #1: Respect Before Popularity – Listen Here

  • Ep. #29: Winning Without Self-Interest – Listen Here

  • Ep. #57: Challenge, Coach, Confront – Listen Here

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