Don’t Make the Leadership Mistake I Made

3.5 minute read

As a by-product of my leadership style, I would conscientiously spend time and effort getting to know the people I supervised; I would learn about their dreams, passions, values, and goals for the future. It’s a best practice in leadership, and when leaders work to see their colleagues as the people they are, it’s natural to get close to them. In fact, most successful professionals have colleagues and subordinates who become friends—it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of work.

Yet, in spite of how much our work relationships can add to the quality of our lives, we still need to hold friends who are also team members accountable for their work, and set the bar of expectations at the same level for them as we do for others we supervise. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way myself, and I share it here in hopes it can help you when this situation arises—as it inevitably will.

Years ago, a couple of people on my team became good friends of mine, perhaps too close, and in these two examples I inadvertently allowed my leadership to be negatively impacted by personal ties. The first was a situation in which one of the colleagues/friends engaged in behavior that was inappropriate in a workplace setting—not illegal or immoral, just inappropriate for the time and place.

After finding out about this person’s behavior, I should have let my boss know about it, because I knew he could potentially find out on his own. Unfortunately, I did not tell my supervisor, and through the grapevine, he did indeed find out about my supervisee-friend’s lapse in judgement.

Of course, my boss was disappointed in me. “I’ve got to be able to trust you, Dan,” he said. “I have to trust you to let me know about these kinds of things immediately, so I and the company are not embarrassed.”

Chagrined, I recognized my mistake, but the damage was done.

Around the same time, another subordinate was a really great person, but not the best fit for the role they were in. After an excruciating period, they finally did leave the company, but it was apparent even as they did that they were late for the door. I should’ve held them accountable and counseled them out of our organization, but again, they were such a kind person I couldn’t bring myself to be sterner with them.

As a result of my handling of these two subordinates, my relationship with my boss was unfortunately negatively impacted because I damaged his trust in me by trying to insulate my friends from the natural and proper consequences of their behaviors.

These are difficult situations at best. With hindsight it’s easier to see that when leading and building relationships with others, leaders have to continue to hold them to high standards. Recall the point made in Leadership Is Not for Everyone—that one of the requirements of leadership is we must build relationships with others and then suffer the pain of holding them accountable when the situation arises. Being a leader means making decisions for the good of the organization that may negatively impact people we care about.

Consequently, there has to be a space between professional and personal relationships in order to do this. That space is derived by properly assessing loyalty and priority between work and social situations. When acting in the capacity of leader, our first loyalty is to the organization, and that is often difficult in practice. Individual leaders must determine for themselves the best way to hold that boundary, whether it means avoiding social media relationships with subordinates, avoiding socializing outside of work functions, or some other method.

For This Week: Take stock of your professional boundaries with those whom you lead. Are they appropriate? Do they need strengthening? Are you holding your team accountable to the same standards, both those of whom you are fond, and those less so?