The Transition Trap: Friendship as Part of Your Leadership Style

Guy walks into a bar. 

Bartender notices how sad he looks and asks, “You OK?” 

“I just lost my best friend,” says the guy. 

“How’d it happen?”

“I became his boss.”

(Bill Gentry in the Harvard Business Review, February 24, 2015)

friendship as part of your leadership style

If you’re like me, you’ve probably had times in your leadership career when you wanted desperately to remain friends with the team when you became the boss.  And yet, that’s the last thing they – or you – really wanted.

Recent studies show that people are looking for inspiration in their leaders, not friendship.  As Eric Garton wrote in a recent article:

“We asked survey recipients [a pool of 2,000 people] what inspired them about their colleagues.  This gave us a list of 33 traits that help leaders in four areas: developing inner resources, connecting with others, setting the tone, and leading the team.  Stress tolerance, self-regard, and optimism help leaders develop inner resources.  Vitality, humility, and empathy help leaders connect.  Openness, unselfishness, and responsibility help set the tone.  Vision, focus, servanthood, and sponsorship help them lead.” (“How to Be an Inspiring Leader,” HBR, April 25, 2017)

What’s noteworthy is what’s not here; there’s no mention of friendship in any of these 33 qualities.  The key emotion we have to overcome in becoming leaders is the fear of not being liked anymore.  It harkens back to our childhood when we wanted to be picked for the softball team, get a date for the prom, be invited to the sleepover with the cool kids… we want to belong.

But allowing friendship as part of your leadership style is a dangerous trap.  If you go down that road, you’re certain to make biased decisions.  Leaders who choose favorites, through friendship or the perception of friendship, will never be respected by their teammates.  And those leaders will never be able to inspire their teams to greatness by modeling the qualities Garton and his team identified above.

When you become the boss you have to make the choice: leader or friend. Effective leaders build productive relationships based on trust and mutual respect.  They hold themselves, and others, accountable and make hard decisions.  But they are not friends with those they serve.  The people we lead want it to be that way.  So should we.  We’ll still belong, just in a different way.  Enjoy the journey!