Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

About every three or four months, this question surfaces during one of our engagements. Most would be hesitant to take a stand on this topic but not us. And since we spend much of our time in high-hazard/high-risk industries, let’s approach it from that vantage point.

In short, when a leader becomes friends with a subordinate, he is injecting more risk into the relationship and, by extension, into the organization. You see, when we truly become friends with those that we are charged to lead, we are hurting our ability and our capacity to lead. Specifically, the research is rather conclusive. Our ability to hold subordinates to high standards and to hold them accountable to the highest levels of performance is in jeopardy when we become friends with those we lead. Some clever subordinates either implicitly or explicitly get this. Toward that end, to help with their job security and safety, they will attempt to become friends with their leaders knowing that friendship is about safety and security—not about standards. If we were to be real for a second, asking ourselves, “When was the last time we held our friends truly accountable?” We don’t. That’s because they are friends. There’s a level of unconditional acceptance contained within friendship. That doesn’t always translate into top shelf performance.

We offer two possibilities below. When emotional maturity is incredibly high—you know it…are sure of it—you may go ahead and enter into a friendship with subordinates. In our studies and other research on elite military organizations—think Lone Survivor or Black Hawk Down—deep connections of loyalty can actually spur incredibly honest feedback. Don’t think about just any friend. Instead, think of your best friend. In these relationships, we can be brutally honest and know that the person is looking out for our well-being. Those types of intimate friendships are few and far between, though. Another approach that we recommend is to be friendly, as opposed to being friends, with subordinates. Being friendly is a communicative style that still allows for some social distance. Being a friend is more. It is about cultivating a relationship. The best leaders can be friendly, but firm, with their subordinates. Especially in a high-hazard, high-risk organization, this seems like the way to go.

Call Robin Bichy, an ELP founder and principal, at 703.999.5676 to learn more on how you can further refine your leadership to drive your team and organization to excellence.