Can Leaders Be Friends?


A good friend once told me that she’s a good friend because she can openly disagree, share a different perspective and not polarize or alienate me in the process.

I married that woman and she’s been my best friend for many, many years. Upon reflection, it seems that life would be so much easier if she would simply always support me and agree with me; isn’t that what we see in the movies and TV shows? Friends supporting one another by agreeing with and empowering each other, validating and justifying literally every thought and action? We all want to be validated … shouldn’t the people closest to us validate us the most?

Maybe I am maturing against all my efforts to the contrary, but I’m learning that a good friend is more like a mentor or a coach than someone who constantly agrees with you. Mentors and coaches know when to validate and when to challenge.

Why am I discussing friendship on a leadership blog? Because many leaders I coach ask the question: “Can I be an effective leader and have a friendship with the people I work with?” And it’s a good question.

I often (and intentionally) answer the question indirectly; I first want to understand how friendship is being defined in the context of the question. Often the question is harboring a bad experience where a “friend” expected special treatment in the workplace or there is a concern that will occur.

Ultimately, the question is less about friendship and more about the power differential between leader and subordinate; however, if we can build psychological safety with those we lead, as we do with friends in other contexts, the question of friendship in the workplace can become a little less scary. So what is psychological safety?

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.” I would suggest that shared expectation is found in the home and with our outside-work friends as well; it’s part of what makes those relationships work.

My wife recently posed a hypothetical situation: If I were the CEO of an organization, would I go to holiday parties with my employees knowing they would likely behave differently than they did at work (e.g., drinking, partying, etc.), and if I did attend such a gathering, would I be able to not hold that behavior against them at work?

As a previous HR director of a large organization, I did and was able to do just that, because I had friendships at work. We absolutely can have friendly relationships and social experiences with our co-workers when we build the psychological safety to do so.

Do you have psychologically safe relationships in your life and work, those relationships where disagreements don’t harm the relationship? Do you have leaders, or are you the type of leader, who developed the ability to ask key questions at pivotal times that grow and develop everyone involved? Are you able to hold more than one truth at a time, and manage the paradoxes that naturally come with the roles and responsibilities of leadership?

Let me know what you think!

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  1. Greg Stone on March 8, 2023 at 2:46 pm

    I am a firm believer that you can be friend and “boss” and empathy comes to mind first and foremost – as a friend you are empathetic to the needs of others and as a boss you must also be empathetic and relationships make that happen where the employee/friend truly feels the boss/friend cares about them and their families

    A good working relationship much like a good marriage includes friendship as well as boss/employee and in the case of me and my wife – she is the boss and I am the employee 🙂

  2. Jeremiah on March 8, 2023 at 4:48 pm

    I think you raise a good point early about the meaning of friendship for the leader. Friendship itself can look very different based on the individuals culture and circumstance. Naturally I am more relational but I’ve had to learn how to shape and mold my own meaning of friendship as I’ve worked with very differently shaped leaders in this regard. Fundamentally the giving and getting of perspectives in an environment of shared positive intent seems to be the standard but how that functionally looks can be very unique to the friends and leaders… Maybe you’re stumbling into a new word here… Leaders + Friends = Freaders

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