When You Become Your Friend’s Boss

It is a leader’s Duty—their moral obligation—to not play favorites.


One of the toughest jobs in leadership could be leading your friends. Many people get promoted and then suddenly realize they are expected to lead people who were peers only a week ago. Suddenly, they have to give direction, coach them and correct them. Sometimes we end up coaching them not to do things we did ourselves—and they know it!


It is a leader’s Duty—their moral obligation—to not play favorites. We must coach everyone fairly, no matter our past relationship with them. I admit I did this poorly one time and better the next.


As a new sales leader, I let a personal relationship with “Elliott” get in the way of me doing my Duty. I was sure I had kept my personal relationship with Elliott separate from our work relationship. We had always told each other our time together outside of work would not impact how we conducted ourselves at work.


We were both wrong.


Elliott left the company after some time. This is when I began to hear stories about Elliott. I began to find out he had pulled the wool over my eyes. My personal relationship with him caused me to overlook the warning signs about his performance. When I asked someone why they didn’t tell me, they answered, “What were we supposed to say, Dave? He was your friend.”


This is when I realized I could not maintain friendships at the same level as I had when we were peers. It was my Duty to separate myself—even if I didn’t like it. This wasn’t to be aloof, it was to become a strong leader.


A few years after Elliot left, I took over a new team. “Chantelle,” her husband and I had each started at the company together nine years earlier. They even became friends with my wife. But, I had learned my lesson. Chantelle and I decided, we could care about each other, but we could not hang out together. We realized we needed to put aside our personal relationship. It was the only way I could exercise Duty and lead the team well. It was a hard decision, but we each had a moral obligation to the team.


It is hard to lead your friends. It’s difficult because you may have to coach and correct them on an issue they know you struggle with as well. They may even challenge us and say, “When you got into leadership. you changed.”


In those situations, we must be willing and able to say:


"You’re right. I have changed because I am trying to learn from my mistakes. I did perform poorly when I had my previous role. I was wrong to do it that way then, and I’d be wrong to let someone do it that way now. I welcome accountability in that area if you ever see me make that mistake. Now, my role, as a leader, is to try to help you and everyone else on this team to do their best work and be better than we were before. This is why I am asking you to make this change now."


The only way this conversation will go well is to pull back from an old friendship. They might not understand, and it will be hard. But, this is the only way you can be sure you are doing your Duty and exercising your moral obligation to treat everyone fairly.


Dig Deep Questions:

  • Have you ever had to lead former peers? What challenges did you face during that time?

  • How does Duty help to form healthy boundary lines?

Making a shift towards taking responsibility and living with Duty is a lifelong journey. We want to partner with you as you practice the habit of Duty daily, which is why we have created our Habits of Character Action Guides.

The Duty Action Guide offers you a month of daily, interactive training complete with a daily reading, dig deep questions, weekly processing guides and instructions on how to use the guide both individually and with your team. The Duty Action Guide is now available here.

We are behind you, championing for you, your teams and your organizations as you become the leader you wish you had. We want to come alongside

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