Leadership Quandary: Can You Be Friends w/ Those You Lead? #peopleskills

Leadership Quandary: Are friendship and leadership compatible?


Leadership Quandary: Image is circle of humans holding hands.

Leadership Quandary: Can You Be Friends w/ Those You Lead? Image licensed from Istockphoto.com.

Image licensed from Istock.com.

For years the answer to this question was no. Leadership training programs cautioned against it.

Even today, many leaders believe that it isn’t wise or even possible. I recently read this in an article on the isolation of leadership. I read another that said friends gossip about the boss so leaders and employees can’t be friends.

Yet, many leaders found in hindsight the answer to this leadership quandary had changed from no to yes. They didn’t plan friendship. They didn’t have it as a goal. They found over time they had become friends with those they lead.

Leadership Quandary: Are friendship and leadership compatible?

Yes if …

  • Leaders earn the employees’ respect through honesty and integrity not fear. When leaders lead through hierarchy and commands, friendship is not likely. Distance, fear, blame, and punishment are the vibe. Conversely if you lead through integrity, engagement, and the respect it earns you, friendship is very possible.
  • Everyone defines friendship the same way. Mature friendships go far beyond just make me feel good and have better things to do than gossip. They are based in mutual support, frank conversations, and subsisting together. They evolve. The leadership quandary over friendship fades as leaders and team members become pillars for each other.
  • Leaders see themselves as servants to the teams. Servant leadership may be the easiest example of how leadership and friendship can co-exist. Servant leaders don’t see themselves as judges. The leadership quandary never confuses them. They lead as a guide, a teacher, a resource, a voice of truth. All traits of a good friend.

Resolving the Leadership Quandary: Friendship & Leadership

  1. Let it evolve. If it’s meant to be it will happen. Don’t declare it. Don’t block it.
  2. As the opportunity arises, discuss what friendship is. What will you do when personal needs and organizational needs conflict? Will friendship be a help or a hindrance?

    There are many generations in the workplace with different views. These conversations can be valuable in building positive interactions even if they don’t produce friendships.

  3. Honor the challenges of transition. If you are the new leader, declaring you are a friend may seem fake. It doesn’t happen in a second. It grows and evolves through actions and interactions. Declaring it can also seem presumptuous, pushy, and insensitive. Team members may feel disappointed that the former leader is gone. Declaring your friendship may be its very death knell.
  4. Determine how to lead your former teammates. One of the toughest challenges of leadership and friendship comes when leading your former teammates. With very mature friendships, the transition can be quite easy. Other times, everyone struggles while adjusting to new roles. Be open. Discuss expectations. Discuss friendship. From this openness you will know how to lead well in your new role. Friendships may re-emerge through the struggle.
  5. Take steps to actively include new teammates/employees. If you have strong friendship with those you’ve been leading, new team members can often feel left out. They often imagine and fear the worst. They might wonder if there is favoritism because of the closeness they see among you.

    You needn’t stop being friends with long time employees. Reach out to new team members and help them feel a part of the team. Have lunch with them or SKYPE with them. Get to know them and give them a chance to get to know you. Respect the evolution of these relationships.

  6. Accept if employees don’t want friendship with you. Some feel uncomfortable with it. They feel more secure separating leadership and friendship.

There are many advantages to letting friendship evolve between you and those you lead. Mature bonds of friendship sustain everyone through difficult times. Friendship’s warmth sustains morale. Friendship’s eyes see and prevent disasters. Friendship feels good and makes work enjoyable.

Leadership Quandary: Image says Don't fear it. Discuss it.

Leadership Quandary: Leaders and team members as friends?

What other risks, challenges, or benefits should we consider?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Related Posts:
Leadership Sincerity: Are You Leading w/ Honesty & Civility?
Leadership: Breed Accountability Not Blame
5 Steps to Develop Emotional Intelligence
Leadership, Are You a Boring Tiresome Leader?

©2014 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. I appreciate your sharing the link to this post on your social streams. However, if you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please email info@katenasser.com for permission and guidelines. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.



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11 Responses to “Leadership Quandary: Can You Be Friends w/ Those You Lead? #peopleskills”

  1. Khalid says:

    Hi Kate,

    You put in this post very well together! You relieved me from my “losing friendship” worry when I become a leader which was one of the things I didn’t want to become leader for!

    I’m happy being liked by my colleague so I can’t imagine losing this touch when I become their boss.

    I will follow your points above very carefully by then 🙂



    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Khalid,
      Many share your concern. Most important to remember, we cannot guarantee if people will stay friends. Yet to fear the loss, is also a great disservice to a friendship. Life evolves and great friendships can stand the test. If not, it is also a natural evolution of life.

      I hope many, like you, will engage in this discussion. It is a long held belief that you can’t be friends with those you lead. I think it’s time for a new look at this age old belief.

      Thanks Khalid!

  2. Maria Garcia says:

    I think based on my experience that one can be both if and only if there are boundaries each of the parties abide with. Long ago since the beginning of my career in management/leadership I was able to have some friends work for me of course those friends of mine know me and my work ethics as well, so there was hardly ever a conflict of interest. I am very committed to my job and even though I love to make job fun and enjoyable I believe there is time for everything and when we are working we need to produce results each party must be held accountable. Recently a friend of mine that owns her own company was telling me about how she party on Saturdays nights with some of her employees, the problem is that next morning they either show up late for work or don’t show up at all to me this is crossing the line. One must discern who to be friends with and who to keep as employee to employer relationship. In my case I believe that people I lead knows me and they know that with me they can joke, have fun, speak their mind but at the same time they know with me they need to produce results and that is the beauty I held them accountable but at the same time we remain friends.
    Thank you for sharing this post with us Kate Nasser

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Maria,
      The story you tell here about “partying on Saturday night” is an example of the importance of having the same definition of friendship. To me, friendship and partying with “the boss” isn’t a license for people not to show up at work. It is very possible to share friendship AND strong commitment to work.

      Love the example you give and I am so grateful you shared it here. It is through real life stories that everyone can learn beyond the words.

      Warmest regards and thanks,

  3. Being friends with coworkers and direct reports is something that is fairly common for the Millennial generation. I’ve seen that for some Millennials where to draw the line comes naturally but for others, it is a struggle. Often the struggle happens when having to improve one’s performance with respect to accountability or when delegating work. Those skilled at handling these types of conflicts tend to first reaffirm the relationship, then clearly highlight where they expect change, and finally then end with a positive note.

    In general, everyone has different types of friendships: casual friends, hangout friends, coworker friends, deep friends, and in the Millennial Generation, parents as friends. Leaders and mentors who are friends are now a new category. Every category has its own rules. I, for one, look forward to seeing what these new relationships will bring.

    Crystal Kadakia
    Gen Y Consulting, Millennial Consulting

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Crystal,
      What a great expansion of this discussion. You have highlighted a particular dimension — generational differences — without bashing any of them. I do agree that it is a struggle for some more than others. With communication and clarifying details about accountability, it is quite possible.

      Many thanks for your comment. You’ve added much!

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