Intent Blog

Being a Good Leader is not Being a Good Friend

There is no better way of getting people to achieve great things than great leadership. But great leadership is a complex problem. In some ways being a good leader is being like a friend, but in other ways, it is not.

being a leaderA great leader is like a friend insofar as the leader cares for his/her people. When a leader genuinely cares for people, he/she gains genuine power, because they allow him/her to tell them what to do. They do not experience a conflict between what the leaders ask them to do and what is good for them. This allows for genuine cooperation and self-less contribution. “I do it because he/she needs me to do it, and I do it to the best of my ability.”

Many leaders have recognized the significance of this element in leadership. Often, however, leaders make a crucial mistake when it comes to caring for their people, they turn their people into their friends.

Leadership is not the same as friendship:

There are a couple of reasons that come to my mind regarding why a leadership relationship, whilst still essentially involving care, is different from a friendship.

A leader has authority

Firstly, a friendship is a relationship between equals. For a relationship to be truly understood as a friendship the individuals in the friendship must view each other as equals. Given this experience of equality, it is not natural for there to be an unequal balance of authority in a friendship. It is always perfectly alright for a person to ignore the friendly advice of a friend, your friend is not your boss.

The matter is different in a leadership relationship. Even if the leader truly cares, when the leader gives an order or an instruction, the person has to follow it and to do otherwise deserves disciplinary measures.  A leadership relationship is a relationship of power, the leader has authority over the person. To deliberately go against the explicit instructions of a leader is to fail to treat the person as the leader.

It is clear why this failure to recognize the asymmetry of authority will have negative consequences for a leaders effectiveness and should be avoided. If a leadership relationship becomes a friendship then the leader is in fact not a leader. There will be the age old problem of having too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

Leaders must hold people accountable

It is not the job of a friend to hold you accountable. A good friend will point out your mistakes but they should not, and typically do not hold you accountable for those mistakes. Friendship involves tolerance for one another. This tolerance is what makes friendship so rewarding. A true friend might disapprove but will ultimately let it slide and will not place any conditions on my behaviour. True friends allow us to make mistakes without the fear of suffering consequences.

Things are however very different in leadership relationships. Holding people accountable is probably the most important part of leadership. It is a big problem for a leader to ignore misbehaviour and poor performance. A great leader always applies fair disciplinary measures when they are warranted. A friend can allow you to wallow in mediocrity, but a leader cannot. It is the leader’s job to be intolerant of misbehaviour and mistakes. It is the job of the leader to ensure that you maintain standards. Becoming friendly will prevent the leader from achieving this end.

How to care without becoming a friend

Ultimately the best way for a leader to ensure that they do not slip into the trap of becoming a friend is to keep the need for accountability firmly in mind at all times. The leader must set standards and hold their his/her accountable when they fail to reach those standards or somehow demonstrate behaviour that is inappropriate.

Doing this is not incompatible with caring, it is just a different sort of caring than we find in friendship. At the end of the day, the leader must hold people accountable for their own sake. A friend accepts you for who you are, a leader insists that you become the best you can possibly be. Friends are tolerant of our failures but leaders are not.

Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.