Friends & Leaders: Some Impossible Generalisations

Jonathan Gosling

Emeritus professor of Leadership Studies, Exeter University


“As Chairman and, I hope, as your friend…” So begins a letter to a Chief Officer – an opening that (though not addressed to me) prompted some reflections on how leadership and friendship sit together. 


The opening of this letter distinguishes yet also subtly aligns two kinds of work relationship. It would be possible to write as Chairperson without evoking the spirit of friendship; equally the author could, putting aside corporate duty, write as a friend regardless of (or even contrary to) what might concern the Board or its Chair. A chairperson should act with the interests of the organisation foremost, while a friend prefers those of the individual. That ought to be unambiguous, but in practice it’s more complicated and harder to generalise.


Perhaps the “I hope” lies at the heart of the problem. Is it “I hope you regard me as your friend?” In other words, is this friendship a reciprocal thing? Or is it “I hope I can still be your friend after what I’m about to say to you?”


What of the CO? How the recipient reads such a letter depends on the quality of that particular relationship. Is it an open-hearted and generous offer, or a cynical manoeuvre? “Am I being played?”, she might ask – and if so, what’s the game?


There can be no simple answer because it depends on the specifics of each case – often it’s both obvious and acceptable that manipulation is an ingredient of management. Even in the best of circumstances such a letter is an attempt to shape the relationship and what it might become. However carefully crafted, it is not without risk of compromising the friendship, the interests of the Board, or both. Yet – to be positive about the possibility – what a delight it must be, to work in a position of power and responsibility in the upper echelons of a hierarchy, where genuine concern for a colleague as a person can be part of the conversation. Surely this can’t be impossible. But it’s strange that senior leaders readily describe their openness and compassion in dealings with subordinates – yet it’s rare to hear people describe conversations with the boss as open and compassionate. Is concern for a junior colleague a self-deluding conceit?


It may not be disingenuity on the part of seniors. They may really see their advice (or their silence) as motivated by concern for the best interests of their subordinate colleagues. It’s just that the work role – the one that must be concerned with corporate rather than personal wellbeing, and the interests of investors, clients or other parties – is ever present in the background.


Hierarchy always implies a potential conflict of interests where friendship is concerned. As a boss you are, after all, required to see your subordinate as a means to corporate ends. Can friendship survive such raw instrumentalism?


Friends are equal?


Friendship in its modern expressions implies an inherent equality. As friends we put aside our different abilities and resources, reciprocate kindnesses and connect as fellow humans. This affirmation is wonderfully energising. So much so, that businesses are often started by a bunch of friends who delight in their camaraderie and shared achievements. But this seldom survives the need to specialise responsibilities, delegate authority and allocate rewards according to risk and contribution. Along with differentiation comes hierarchy and inequality. Yet sometimes friends are able to adjust to this, and although many have learned not to mix friendships with business, others have drawn on the commitment, trust and resilience of their friendship to adapt to changing professional demands.


Some types of organisation seem inherently friendlier to friendship – Co-ops and partnerships are more inclined to equality and reciprocity than the corporate hierarchy; and they are certainly popular – there are over 350 million co-op memberships in the USA (more than the total population of that country). But sadly, the absence of hierarchy doesn’t do away with competition, power-play and instrumentalism – enemies of friendship are rife in ‘equal’ organisations.


Friendship hasn’t always been equated with equality. To be a friend to someone in need (especially someone younger and less powerful) acknowledges a responsibility of privilege. To offer a helping hand is a pleasure that many enjoy as they become more secure in their superiority, and at the same time it can build a web of reciprocal favours and obligations.


Equally, it has always been hard to get on in life without “friends in high places” and patronage of some sort, at some stages in a career. “Networking” extends contacts at all levels, but is a means to an end – however unspecified that end might be. How to make friends and influence people remains an important ‘life skill’. But to the modern ear, this grates, surely friendship is an end in itself?



Cliques and Diversity


Friendly collaboration amongst colleagues can easily generate an inward looking clique where shared challenges and successes develop an exclusive bond. Anyone who has been part of a start-up, new product launch, a complex merger or a crisis response is likely to remember the special camaraderie. Even after such projects come to an end, strong bonds sometimes survive. No wonder that people who have shared significant identity-forming experiences early in life often form friendships that withstand the rigours and abandonments of adult life. In a class-bound culture such as Britain, the intuited empathy amongst men who grew up in boarding schools has become the basis of an ‘old-boys network’ that excludes many, but provides a sense of comfort, trust and security for insiders. Schoolgirls may be just as prone to cliques, but so far these have had less corrosive impact on business cultures – especially banking, where self-serving cliques such as the ‘Essex Express’ (foreign exchange dealers who formed a cartel to rig the markets) are a persistent and ubiquitous mode of organising that stretches across the boundaries of formal organisations and is impressively resistant to governance.


Stressful jobs filled with uncertainty can be brightened by common experiences, like- mindedness and mutual respect. When you are under pressure it’s so much easier to be with people who think and feel the same. So, cliques are an understandable defence against anxiety, but their inclusive feeling is matched by their exclusivity.


Diverse, contrarian, even overtly critical perspectives are essential in avoiding groupthink and wilful blindness. Too much chumminess can be a source of risk if it excludes such difference.


The higher one goes, the more in need of friends; yet there are valid reasons to be suspicious of friendship at work. Corporate hierarchies become intensely political at senior levels, where part of the job is to compete for resources and influence on behalf of a business unit or specialism. Alliances and co-operative relations are tactical necessities, and friendliness can be instrumentally helpful – but that’s not the same as friendship.


In hierarchies characterised by career bottlenecks, the higher the position, the harder to keep it; maintaining a reputation for success and achievement is crucial. Personal loyalties may have to be left behind, and a combination of incessant competitiveness and suppressed doubt – imposter syndrome – can threaten self-esteem and confidence unless bolstered by ever more assertive self-sufficiency. These are just some of the factors that can drive isolation and loneliness in senior positions – “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”.


As friends we put aside our different abilities and resources reciprocate kindnesses and connect as fellow humans.


With more pressure on time, sustaining friendships outside of work becomes hard. One contribution of executive coaching is to offer a politically disinterested confidante. A coach may become a surrogate or professional friend. Outside of such professional relations, some people enjoy what can be thought of as a ‘personal board of directors’ – a metaphor that invokes a certain type of advisory conversation. As with corporate boards, the people who offer most helpful guidance might not be friends, though they must be trusted to have your best interests at heart.


Trust and a culture of friendship


Friendship exists to be able to talk about what really matters and what matters most. You need a trusting group to be able to have challenging conversations that enable people to talk about difficult things – worrying practices in the organisation, mental health of colleagues, how the business model impacts climate change, what counts as responsible use of power and influence.


If you can’t talk about these things at work, it’s clearly not a friendly or trusting place. For many, even raising such issues is a betrayal of an implicit pact to suppress doubts and carry on. Whistle-blowers are seldom seen as friends to their colleagues, even when revealing a truth that is fundamental to integrity (the most commonly espoused corporate value). Whatever mix of motives in speaking against the grain, it might well be an act of care – even if it’s rarely interpreted as such – rather than an outright act of betrayal.


Care & carelessness


Caring for another, and being cared for, is probably the most important facet of friendship. That ‘other’ might be a single person, a family, a mission or even the planet Earth and all sentient beings. Yet there is something else about the intimacy of close personal friendships where caring for each other can be taken as given – so much so that carelessness is an affordable luxury, and vulnerability is a virtue of friendship. Perhaps after all, they might be found in a letter that begins: “As Chairman and, I hope, as your friend…”


Professor Jonathan Gosling is emeritus professor of Leadership Studies, Exeter University.