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Leadership Development 12 July 2016

Does being a good leader mean you can't be a good friend?

How often have you heard the conventional wisdom that you can’t be friends with the people you lead?

If you’re the boss, so the world would have you think, you have to keep a professional distance from your team, never blurring the lines between the personal and the professional.

Well, never one to ignore the advice of a woman at the top of her game, I think Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gives it to us straight when she says “I don’t believe we have a professional self Monday through Friday and a real self the rest of the time. It is all personal and it is all professional.”

I don’t know where you work or where your company sits on the spectrum of personal to professional, but here at Insights, we’re all for bringing our whole selves to work, every single day. For me that means I form friendships with those I work closely with and I don’t distance myself in the name of hierarchy or tradition.

But, of course, none of us can pretend that we live in a utopia where no hierarchy exists. And yes, when you’re friends with your team members, your boss or your CEO, there will be times where things feel tough to negotiate. So let’s think about what the rules of relationships might look like when roles are – shall we say – uneven at work.

Don’t fake it

I truly dislike the saying ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. In my eyes, why would you ever fake it? Be who you are – shy, open, giggly, serious, awkward, extraverted, nerdy, unhappy, unsure, on top of your game – whatever you are, just own it. And that goes twice for a leader who is friends with his or her team.

You can’t enjoy Friday night cocktails with the team, and then slip on a corporate mask as you walk into the office on a Monday morning. Nobody will know who they’re dealing with, the real life you or the corporate you, and your relationships will begin to falter.

Rather, I say that if you are resolutely yourself, retaining your core values and acting upon those, but being clear that ultimately you’re here to deliver a job on behalf of the organisation, then your team will get it. We’re all adults here and we know that sometimes people have got to do what they’ve got to do.

Be scrupulously fair

Here’s the crux of it – being friends in work and out is one thing. But letting that friendship affect the team dynamic is quite another. So when it comes to leadership decisions, you’ve got to be not just fair, but seen to be fair. For the big decisions – promotions, salary increases – and the small – personal appointments and who gets first dibs on holidays – who you like most simply can’t play a part at all in the process.

And not because – or not just because - there will be those who want to doubt your integrity in decision-making. For yourself, because you want to be able to look in the mirror every day and know that you’re as good a leader as you are a friend. Set your leadership boundaries from the outset and apply them with consistency and good judgement.

It’s ok to ‘just’ be the leader

Maybe this leader-as-friend non-hierarchical approach doesn’t work for you – and you should know that’s ok too. You can, of course, be a really effective leader while also choosing to keep your personal life separate from work. Just because you don’t make a deep connection with your colleagues’ lives, inside and outside of work, doesn’t mean you don’t care about their welfare or their aspirations.

There are all kinds of leaders doing a great job, in their own way, all around the world. If you want to learn more about becoming a transformational leader who knows how to adapt to the needs of their team, contact us now.

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