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Can a leader be friends with their subordinates?

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There are lots of opinions on this particular subject. Some people firmly believe that leadership is a lonely business and that friendships undermine the effectiveness of the leader.

I think that this position is too simplistic and doesn’t capture the complexities of human behaviour and the importance of the leader/subordinate relationship. Before we dive headlong into this, let’s first establish what it means to be “friends”.

The online Cambridge dictionary describes a friend as:

A person who you know well and who you like a lot, but who is usually not a member of your family”.

In addition, friendships are exclusive of sexual relations. That would be a completely different set of circumstances and further complicates the leader/subordinate dynamic.

So, a friend is someone who you like a lot. A friend is someone you know well, and a friend is someone that you share mutual affection with. If the mutual affection extends to a sexual relationship, then this can be considered as more complex than just friendship and isn’t covered here.

Given this definition, it’s easy to see how some observers believe that friendships can undermine a leader’s position. A relationship based on a mutual affection for one another is a fertile breeding ground for a leader to show favouritism to their friend over other people within their team. However, in some ways, the problem with not being friends with your subordinates is even more problematic than the possibility of showing favouritism.

If leadership is defined as:

“Getting someone else to do, what you want them to do, because they want to do it”

then it stands to reason that this is far easier if you are able to compel those that you have a mutual affection for. Leading friends, it seems, can be very effective indeed. Of course, it comes with its complexities, but I wouldn’t jump on the bandwagon of severing ties with your subordinates just yet.

As a leader you can choose between a directive, participative and delegative leadership style; often changing depending on the situation or the interaction. This is called situational leadership. The same goes with your interactions with your subordinates. There are times when you should interact in an empathetic way, there are times when you should interact in a firm way and there will be times when you have to make the tough decisions where friendships no longer come into the equation. Be firm, fair and friendly as a leader and you can’t go too wrong.

Of course, this doesn’t actually answer the question. Can you be friends with your subordinates? The answer is yes, yes you can.

However, it takes communication prior. It relies on you as the leader outlining a “line in the sand” and explaining the expectations of your friend. It relies on the friend being mature about the nature of the relationship and acknowledging that the team is more important than the friendship. It relies on both parties discussing favouritism and what that looks like and then both being responsible for that not taking place.

Being friends with a subordinate isn’t easy, and a leader shouldn’t seek it in the first instance, as it tends to complicate the leader’s role. However, if a leader finds themselves in charge of their friends, well it is achievable and if it is done right it can even strengthen the team.

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