Can You Be Friends With The People You Lead?

 Let love be genuine. 

Romans 12:9

Are you friends with your employees? Perhaps not with every single one, but have you cultivated genuine friendships with most of them?

I cringe when I hear leaders and coaches say they can’t be friends with the people they lead and coach. They believe they shouldn’t be friends because it may lead to perceived favoritism. Or that it may mitigate their ability to correct negative performance. So they separate themselves. They build walls.

They serve, but they don’t extend camaraderie.

Does this resonate with you?

God wants us to do more than just serve. He wants us to experience deep joy in serving! I believe that it’s difficult – if not impossible – to experience deep joy in relationships with people you don’t let close. Leadership and friendship must be more synonymous than not.

In my experience, when you take steps to become a servant leader as Jesus modeled, you can’t help but become friends with and therefore a more effective servant of the people you lead. Servant leadership is all about relationships; the connections we make, the friendships we create. It’s a much more joyous — and much more effective — approach to being a boss.

People perform better when they sense that you are genuine in your concern for them.

So, how can you cultivate friendships with the people you lead in a way that fuels your support of them and their performance for you?

Celebrate Common Purpose and Passion. 
Close friends oftentimes share a hope and vision around a preferred state of the future. This common focus cements their friendship. As a servant leader, you can connect with people through your organization’s purpose, vision, and values. You can talk about these things conversationally, in real terms. Drop the slogans and “marketing speak” and instead spark a discussion about the difference your work makes for you. Why can’t you wait to get up in the morning to support your team? Articulate these things to your people, often. You’re on the same journey. Help your people realize this. When people get connected to a common purpose and passion, great things happen!
Demonstrate Loyalty and Personal Character. 
Devotion. Allegiance. Faithfulness. How often do you hear about these things in today’s mobile economy? Their rarity creates an opening for you! If you demonstrate your steadfastness and dependability, you’ll stand out in people’s minds. They’ll trust you, just as they trust their friends to “have their backs” when something goes wrong. This can’t be lip service, however. Loyalty requires responsibility and commitment. Your people will watch you closely to make sure you’re actually “in it” with them for the long haul. Don’t disappoint them.
Be Selfless. 
Like friendship, servant leadership involves a concern for the well being of others. It means putting your people ahead of yourself, looking out for them, and acting in ways that benefit them, even if they’ll never be aware that you did. Give yourself to your people. Help others become the people that they want and are meant to be. I promise, your effort will be reciprocated. Through giving, you’ll learn more about yourself and how you can actualize God’s plan for your life.
Be Honest.
Have integrity. That goes without saying, right? But, being honest means more than just telling the truth. It means encouraging others to speak up and tell their truth, as well – even if it’s not what you want or need to hear. When you encourage honest communication, you and the people you lead hold up bright, shiny mirrors to each other. You reveal in stark detail how your behaviors impact your relationships, either positively or negatively. Friendship is built on this honesty — and the humbleness to shift course when needed.
Listen Intentionally.
Pay attention to what’s being said. But also, look for what’s being withheld. Ask questions. Check your understanding. Test your perception. Like friends, servant leaders do their best coaching when they are listening and asking great questions that lead to discovery and growth.
Extend Compassion.
Both friends and servant leaders are concerned about the suffering of others. It is this attitude that calls you to be present and approachable at all times. Be the person that people come to in times of trouble. Extend empathy first…then offer support. When people feel heard and validated, they’ll continue to open up to you. You need this openness to lead your people effectively.
Let Yourself Be Vulnerable. 
Like friends, servant leaders are humble and vulnerable. Be open to sharing your weaknesses. Through sharing, you open the door to others to step up and contribute in the areas where you’re lacking. Being vulnerable is a gift to the people you lead. Remember: friendship is a two-way street. You’ve got to let yourself be supported, too.

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. 

Ecclesiastes 4:12

The world needs servant leaders. Servant leadership is rooted in friendship. You don’t have to choose to be one or the other. You can be both! Your organization will benefit from your becoming a great friend and a great servant leader.

What are your thoughts? Can you lead and be a friend at the same time?


My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  John 15:12-13

Mark W. Deterding
MARK Deterding is an author, speaker, consultant, executive coach and the founder of Triune Leadership Services, LLC. His purpose is to work with leaders to help them develop core servant leadership capabilities that allow them to lead at a higher level and enable them to achieve their God-given potential. He has written two books, A Model of Servant Leadership, and Leading Jesus’ Way. With over three decades of experience directing companies and developing leaders, Mark created A Model of Servant Leadership parallel to the principles that Jesus himself illustrated. Working with organizations, leadership teams, and executives one-on-one, he helps bring focus, clarity, and action to make things work. He also conducts training programs to teach faith-based servant leadership principles. His greatest passion is seeing the impact servant leadership has on people’s lives and beyond. Prior to Triune Leadership Services he worked for 35 years in the printing industry holding senior leadership positions at Taylor Corporation, RR Donnelly, and Banta Corporation. He is an accomplished executive with a proven track record for developing purpose-driven; values based teams that drive culture improvement, enhanced employee passion, and improved business results. He is featured in Ken Blanchard’s book “Leading at a Higher Level”, and has been a featured speaker for the Ken Blanchard Companies Executive Forum in both 2007 and 2011. Mark lives in Alexandria, Minnesota with his wife Kim. They have two sons, two daughter-in-laws, and three grandchildren, so far. To find out more about Mark and his work, visit Triune Leadership Services via the Link adjacent his Photo above.


  1. While I agree with your list of attributes desirable in a leader, I don’t think those need to, nor should lead to personal friendships or relationships. As a rule, friendships with employees leads to problems. There is a big difference between being friendly with employees and picking one or more to be personal friends to the exclusion of others. Not good. There is a big world out there. Make personal friends away from the workplace.

    • Kenneth, thanks so much for your input on building relationships with the people you lead. I certainly can understand and relate to the perceived risks that you point out. I view this more behaviorally from a relationship standpoint, than the emotional aspect of friendships. When we as leaders choose to be patient, kind, honest, humble, selfless, respectful, and forgiving, people will know that we truly care about them. I have found that will lead to positive relationships in the workplace. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily hang out with them outside of work or are personal family friends. But these relationships will lead to high performance and being a leader that others want to follow.



Must Read

- Advertisment -