What your closest friendships can teach you about how to be a better leader

I have three close girlfriends who are “my people”.

They’re the ones I’d call first when the thing I fear the most happens. The ones I send ugly face, greasy hair pics to on a far too regular basis. They’re the humans who have hugged me, and have sat quietly beside me with compassion and non-judgement when I’m in a bad place. They’re also the ones who celebrate my joyous moments as if they were their own.

These are ‘my girls’, even though we’re way past the ‘my girls’ stage. According to my fourteen-year-old daughter, they’re my “Forevers”.

What’s my friendship with these three women got to do with a leadership blog, you might ask?

Not much at first glance. There’s a lot that’s far removed (as it should be) from professional relationships.

But actually, there are a few lessons we can learn from our deepest, closest friendships when it comes to building high trust, effective professional relationships.

It’s a matter of proportion. It would be inadvisable (and let’s be honest, a bit creepy) if you loved your team-mates as I love and feel loved by these three humans. But if my friendship with them was a fruit juice – our friendship is the concentrate. Your relationship with the team you lead can still be that juice – just diluted. It’s the same magic, but in much smaller proportions.  

There are things present in your most trusted personal relationships that are important to cultivate with the team you lead and in your professional life.

Sarah, Carmel and me aka The Bridesmaids.

What are they?

  1. First, embrace people as they are and where they are.

My three girlfriends accept me for who I am, warts n all. They know what gets me excited, but also what makes me anxious. They know that my drive to feel “good enough” is a lifelong journey. They know I am human and I stuff up. They love me not despite my failings – but perhaps because of them. They accept that I’m imperfect, I am flawed. They love me wholeheartedly regardless. They meet me where I am.

How can you take this concentrate and apply the diluted version with those you lead?

Get to know the people you’re leading as people, not merely as a ”human resource” in relation to your organisation. It’s not just about understanding their motivations or getting to know little things about their family or their interests outside of work – although these are good things to do. It’s also about working with them to uncover their strengths and their struggles.

Understand that we all have gifts and work-ons. Coach and support those you lead to shine a light on their strengths. Help them understand the areas that they could develop further at work. Meet them where they are now – and take little steps, together, to move their development and growth forward.  

  1. Be a challenging cheerleader who doesn’t shy away from tough conversations.

My girls call me on my bullshit. But they do it in a loving way, with my best interests as their compass. There have been times when my three friends have gently, directly pointed out when I’m out of line. Or when I’m falling into unhelpful patterns that they can see before I’m even aware of them. They do this with care and tenderness as the fuel for those crucial conversations.

How can you take this concentrate and apply the diluted version with those you lead?

If you see a team member is stumbling, or if they have a blind spot – or when they’re ‘getting in their own way’ at work, have the courage to let them know. After all, isn’t that what you would want your leader to do?

First, check your intention.

  • Is this about truly helping them?
  • Is your heart in the driving seat?
  • Have you built trust?

If you can answer yes to these questions, have the courage to put their best interests above your own comfort. See here and here for tips on how to have a good feedback conversation.

Amy and I
  1. Believe in their potential.

These three friends of mine believe in my potential. They often see that potential clearer than I do. They see my potential even when I’m not living up to it. They encourage me to follow the path which my inner pilot light is calling me to follow, even if it doesn’t make sense to me in the moment. Like when I told them I wanted to write my book, Beyond Burnout, but was nervous about my ability to do so. They told me I could do it. And do a good job of it too.

How can you take this concentrate and apply the diluted version with those you lead?

Uncover the unique strengths and aspirations of each team member you lead. Pay attention to when they’re talking about something they’re passionate about. Encourage them to get outside their comfort zone, especially when they may not have that belief in themselves. Urge them to apply for that promotion if they’re not sure they’re ready, but you know they are. Honour their professional dreams and if they have gaps to fill in order to realise those dreams, help them close them.

  1. Be consistent.

My girls have been there through the good times and bad. They have walked alongside me through the ups and downs of my life. Their consistency counts.

They’re also reliable in the way they show up– I know I’ll get the same authentic person when I pick up the phone each time. I don’t have to tip-toe around them wondering what version I will see. They have my back – always – and I know it.  

How can you take this concentrate and apply the diluted version with those you lead?

One of the two types of trust is called cognitive trust – it’s to do with consistency, reliability, and dependability (and competence). How do you develop it? Do what you say you’ll do. Act the way you tell your team you will. If things go wrong, don’t throw them under the bus. Walk alongside your team through the wins and the losses.

  1. Have the courage to be vulnerable.

Although all three of my friends are strong accomplished women, they don’t hide themselves from me. Just as I have shared with them, they too are vulnerable with me. This brings me closer to them, not further apart. My response when they do share too is usually, “whew, it’s not just me!” We connect over our struggles. We feel less alone.

How can you take this concentrate and apply the diluted version with those you lead?

Ditch the superhero archetype of a leader – the one who stands and commands, who has all the answers, and who doesn’t make mistakes. Help your team to see it’s ok to share their mistakes without it being a career-limiting move by sharing yours first. Let them know that you too have worries, weaknesses and work-ons.

Maybe you too have a deep friendship like mine with my three friends. If you do, reach out to them today to let them know how grateful you are for them.

And then take a smidgeon of those magical qualities present in your friendship and bring them to the leadership of your team.

And Amy, Sarah and Carmel?

I am so, so grateful for your love.

2 Comments

  1. Tanya on November 30, 2022 at 7:18 am

    Love this blog Suzi!!

  2. Nicole on November 29, 2022 at 9:33 am

    Awesome and very relatable blog!! Thank you.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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