Barrack Obama told Hillary Clinton that she was likable enough, and she never recovered.
In 2008, the U.S. Democratic Party brought the Presidential Primary race to New Hampshire. A debate was held between four candidates including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. During the event the moderator directed a question at Senator Clinton, “You are the most experienced and the most electable. … But what can you say to the voters of New Hampshire who see your resume and like it, but are hesitating on the likability issue? They seem to like Barrack Obama more?”
To this, Senator Clinton responded, “Well, that hurts my feelings.” She then paused, played to the pity of her audience by dropping her head and said, “But I’ll try to go on.”
In prophetic acquiescence, she said, “He’s very likable. I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad.”
Senator Obama than paid her the unforgettable back-handed compliment of the entire campaign, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
During that debate in 2008 between Senator Clinton and Senator Obama, Clinton was the expert. And, eight years later when she ran again and debated Donald Trump, she was the expert again. But both times she lost the election. Just because experts have talent, education, and experience, it does not mean people will like them. In fact, the more remarkable an expert becomes, the higher the probability that likability is an issue.
Of course, there are many times when expertise is more important than temperament, but temperament matters, and it matters a lot more than some experts believe. Likable people more easily gain trust and influence. If your audience likes you they will overlook your flaws and the flaws of your product or service. They will forgive and forget old issues. They will award you with more business and will pay you more money. If something goes wrong, and it eventually will, people who like you will give you the benefit of the doubt and minimize the error. Being likable has many advantages.
Most experts understand intrinsically that they should try to be likable. Yet, many do very little to address deficiencies in this area. Let’s face it, for some experts being likable is difficult, so much so that some experts became experts intentionally so they can justify their unlikableness. For them it is easier to become an expert in their field of study than to develop a delightful personality. Some experts would never allow themselves to retain a knowledge gap in their field of expertise yet they will spend their entire careers with likability gaps in their personality.
Your competition is working hard to be likable even if you are not. Non-experts have known for a long time that the way to get ahead of an expert is by being more likable than they are. For some experts, likeability is their Achilles’ heel. Most non-exerts know that if you cannot out smart an expert, you still have a good chance of beating them by being more amiable, more pleasant, more appealing, and more good-natured.
As hard as it may seem for some experts, they can learn to be likable. And, we are not talking about just being tolerable. Many experts are tolerable, but few are truly charming. Likable experts acknowledge other people. They are kind, pleasant, and friendly. Showing genuine interest in an audience and listening to them when they speak will take experts a long way. But, being likable also means experts are sympathetic and patient. It means they demonstrate that they know people are more important than expertise. Being likable means you remain happy even when it is hard to be happy. It means you are not disagreeable even when you disagree. It means you don’t easily become irritable or angry. The likable are not disagreeable, even when they disagree. Great experts take the time to discover things about their audience that are sincerely interesting and laudable. Likable experts do thoughtful and kind things for their audience or, better yet, for their audiences’ colleagues. One of the most likable things any person can do is help another person’s child. Find ways to help people and lift them. If you are an expert and you are likable, truly likable, then you cannot be stopped. Likability and industry leading expertise are a rare combination.
Experts should never be satisfied by being “likeable enough!” If someone says you are likable enough, then be assured, you are not likable enough. If Senator Clinton did not prove that likability is essential in 2008, then she certainly did in 2016.