Is Friendship a Leadership Quality?

Friendships at Work

If you had asked me ten years ago if “friendship” is a leadership quality, I doubt I would have given it more than a second before declaring this:

“No!” Friendship is not and should not be part of leadership!

I would have added “In fact, being friends with people you work with can often cause more heartaches and headaches than it ever does any good.”

A Change of Heart

However, this last week I discovered through personal experience that I believe that friendship is a quality of leadership that is rare, and yet extremely powerful in professional relationships.

Before I share that experience, I would like to explore the concept of friendship, and hopefully bring you the reader with me in this personal discovery.

What is Friendship?

As defined by Wikipedia, Friendship is a form of interpersonal relationship generally considered to be closer than association.  The value that is found in friendships is often the result of a friend demonstrating the following on a consistent basis:

  • The tendency to desire what is best for the other
  • Sympathy and Empathy
  • Honesty, perhaps in situations where it may be difficult for others to speak the truth, especially in terms of pointing out the perceived faults of one’s counterpart
  • Mutual understanding and compassion
  • Trust in one another

Although I could have gone to a number of sources for a definition of friendship, I found this one particularly interesting as it could describe to your best friend and your manager.  Although we are quick to see the connections between best friends, how bad would this kind of relationship be if it were between the CEO and employees?

Leadership Qualities Worth Considering

The tendency to desire what is best for the other person

This is a win-win situation by which the employee is seeking to perform at the best possible rate to make the manager look good.  At the same time the manager is clearing a path and removing obstacles.

Empathy in the workplace

This is so often missing, or it is a one-way street.

Can you imagine what would happen if more people could empathize with the issues, restrictions and conflicts that others are going through?

Sure the manager wins big when they can empathize with an employee, but think about how much less the typical employee needs to struggle with a new set of rules if they can empathize with management and their reasoning for implementation of new processes.

Trust in one another

This could build and repair so many bridges within an organization once developed.  There is more distrust in business relationships than in personal friendships.

How wonderful would it be if we trusted each other more at work?

Two Eyes Open

Observing Friendship in Leadership

For the past five years I’ve been an independent performance consultant, trying to earn a living outside of an internal corporate environment.  Originally this was my choosing, but the poor economy kept me busy as most organizations seek to reduce full-time staff replacing them with contractors.

However, in the past year, the work has been getting much more difficult to find.

I routinely keep in touch with a long list of contacts from past employment, and last week I received an email from a former boss who has also been struggling in the past year.  In response to an email I sent him a few weeks ago, he was telling me that he had turned a corner and was doing much better.  Like most people, he ended his email with“how is your business doing?”

For some odd reason, (I like to think it was a combination of the above friendship qualities,) I answered truthfully.

I really didn’t think much about it until I got a return email that just said “Are you available for lunch?”

I read my email response again, and realized that I had bluntly said, “I’m not sure my talents are good enough to make this work.”

And now he wants to take me to lunch.

“Oh great!” I thought. “This must be some kind of pity lunch for poor little me…”

My Big Surprise

Lunch was the Ah Ha Moment!

So we set a date and time for lunch. All along I’m wondering how to save face when I meet with this guy now that I let my guard down and told him I think I’m worthless.

I’ve always admired this guy, and although I never reported directly to him, I was one of his supporters as he rose to the rank of CEO.

So why on earth are we going to lunch?

Although we moved the date 3 times with his very busy schedule, it seemed very important to him that we keep a lunch date on the calendar.   After the small talk was over, he looked at me and said he was sorry to hear I was having a “slow spot” in my work.  (That’s putting is mildly…)

He went on to remind me of everything I had done for the company for which we both had formerly worked. Much to my surprise, he told me point-blank something that absolutely blew me away.

He said this:

 “In all the companies I’ve worked for, I’ve never seen anyone in the training role lead us like you did. It was like magic!”

Feeling the Love!

Based on the words and interactions with my former “boss,” I left that lunch feeling like a million bucks!

Did this guy really need to go out of his way to lift my spirits?  Not at all! 

Yet, this gesture of friendship was a strong indicator of his leadership abilities. It was clear that he was thinking about me and not about himself. I mean, we are not buddies or pals, and this is the first social engagement I’ve ever had with him. Yet this single act of emphatic kindness and concern and his reason behind his intentions demonstrated true leadership that I will follow anywhere he wants to lead.

  • What have you done in the form of friendship that has a leadership quality to it?
  • Have you ever acted as a friend to employees and seen a positive change in their behavior?
  • Have you had a similar experience where you have witnessed friendship in a leader?

Jim Hopkins
 is the CEO of JK Hopkins Consulting

He a Consultant, Coach, Author and Speaker in Organizational & Performance Health
Email | LinkedIn | Website | Blog | (562) 943-5776

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L2L Contributing Author


  1. leadingquotes on August 3, 2011 at 1:32 am

    Wow! I actually was just writing about this a little bit on my blog, and it’s a really similar idea. How trusting relationships with your coworkers and employees can build a better communication network and how servant leadership is really about communication and serving others. That’s really cool. And great topic/well put together. Oh… and if you or anybody wanted to look at it for any reason:

    I hope to read more great articles here!

  2. Lech on August 3, 2011 at 8:16 am

    I’ve come across contrasting opinions regarding manager-team member friendships. Some advise it, others – on the contrary. The latter mention trust being at risk.

    I would rather consider the characteristics of the manager. If the person is very empathetic, kind etc., I’d go for slightly more distance, to prevent “friendship” being abused. After all, we are here to serve others – friendship per se is not the goal.

    In general, I would argue that any perspective helps – if we are too close, we might “lose sight” of what’s necessary in favor of what feels nice.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

    All the best!

  3. Jim Hopkins on August 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    I think what you have brought up is excellent. Not only is this a new way of processing the idea of friendship, but that these are qualities of a leader. This is not to say (like the picture shows) that we are pals and buds out partying with our staff. That is still crossing the line in my world.

  4. Eleather B. on August 3, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    I appreciate the connection you brought out about a good leader possessing the same qualities as a friend would. In my 11 years of working in the corporate and non-profit environments, I have come to experience and appreciate that leaders – at all levels, and not necessarily in executive positions – are effective because they perform their work with a true human touch. In my roles as an entry level worker to manager to director, I have found that it is sometimes very easy to lose the sight that we are all humans working together, not simply “objects” performing a task.

    I was fortunate that early in my career I had a manager that displayed these qualities with each of team members and peers. I recall several instances where this manager reached out to me with empathy because I was overly critical of myself, discouraged because of a project not progressing as I had hoped, and disappointed because of things happening in my personal life. The result was that through kind, support, honest words and actions, I was able to gain the confidence and encouragement needed to keep moving forward. This manager really fostered the relationship with each team member that helped us reach our full potential within that organization, and to greater heights within our careers.

    Since that experience, I have been impelled to become a leader to help people, by means of the same qualities as a friend displays, to feel appreciated, build confidence, and encourage them to become the best they can at that time. Yeah, I’ve had to have some firm and uneasy conversations with staff or colleagues, but it was done with the intent to help them and most of the time my efforts were appreciated.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. […] Is Friendship a Leadership Quality? (

  6. alozie davey on February 16, 2012 at 9:08 am

    i equally agree with you that effective leadership means effective friendship. a leader who is a friend to the followers will find the work easier because real friends will always fluff your aura.