Entrepreneurs: Your Team Needs You To Be A Leader, Not A Friend

One of my favorite television series of all time is “The Office.” Few shows in history have managed to blend the hilarious with the heart wrenching as deftly.

It is, of course, the bumbling but ultimately well-meaning boss Michael Scott who gets most of the laughs.

Taken out of context, any one of Michael’s many indiscretions and missteps would bring a career to a swift and ignominious end. However, the viewer is always able to sympathize with the moronic manager because his heart is in the right place.

You see, above all else, Michael Scott wants to be friends with his employees. He views them as a family, and while he rarely succeeds, he tries to treat them as such.

I can empathize with Michael in this regard. I’ve always tried to be friends with my employees and treat them accordingly.

However, I’ve learned the hard way that this approach leads to problems. My desire to be “nice” and “understanding” caused me to avoid conflict, set nebulous expectations, and ultimately fail those around me.

Eventually, I came to a stark realization: My team needed a leader, not a friend. 

Avoiding conflict only makes things worse

I usually revel in conflict. There is something about embarking on a righteous crusade that motivates and inspires me.

However, I don’t care for intra-office conflict. As a leader, I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt and hope that they simply do the right thing.

That approach, however, causes more problems than it avoids. The reason is that people rarely want to do the wrong thing.

When behaviors disappoint or are misaligned with expectations, it’s usually due to differences in understanding or perception. Conflict avoidance does nothing more than take a bad situation and make it worse.

Instead, leaders must make their expectations clear, even when it is uncomfortable. For example, we have relatively flexible hours here at BodeTree.

If a team member wants to work 8:30 to 5:30, that usually isn’t a problem. However, I have some team members who, by the nature of their job, need to be in at 8:00 sharp.

I’ve struggled to articulate that need well in the past, for a few reasons. First, I always hope that people simply do the right thing. Second, I hate setting double standards.

As a result, I’ve avoided saying anything. That approach, however, is as cowardly as it is ineffective.

What I needed to do was simply level with those team members, explain the situation, and set expectations.  The ambiguity created by my conflict avoidance only led to confusion and frustration. 

Remember that it’s not about you

Leadership is a lot like parenting. When you’re a parent, you love your child so much that you want to give them anything they want. The temptation is that by reveling in the good times and spoiling them with gifts, they will somehow love you more.

The truth, however, is that parenting isn’t about fun and games. It’s about molding your child into a person who can be an upstanding, respectable, and successful adult some day.

That requires discipline, dedication, and difficult decisions. If you want what’s best for your child, you act as a parent first and a friend second.

The same logic applies to managing a team. As a leader, it feels good when the team is relaxed, comfortable, and having fun. 

You’re viewed as a “fun boss,” that people relate to. However, just as with parenting, leadership requires more. You can’t help people grow, mature, and perform without pushing them.

If you don’t lay out expectations for the team, push people out of their comfort zones, and hold people accountable, you’re failing in your most important role as a leader. Trying to be everyone’s best friend is a fundamentally selfish act.

It’s not about you and how well you’re liked. Leadership is about helping people become the best they can be. That means stepping up and doing what is hard, no matter what.

Accept that leadership is lonely

People still subscribe to the pyramid model of leadership, where the king sits at the top and is supported by legions of team members who strive to please.

Instead, true leadership is like an inverted pyramid, with the entire organization relying on a single leader to support their efforts.

There is no escaping the fact that the role of the CEO is a fundamentally lonely one. You have no peers and end up doing the team a disservice when to try to be everyone’s best friend.

Leadership means putting others ahead of yourself, and the team ahead of everyone. That requires discipline, sacrifice, and courage.

If you do the right thing for individuals and the team as a whole, you won’t always be liked. That simply goes with the territory, because employees need leaders, not friends.

Tags: Leadership Essentials

Chris Myers

Written by Chris Myers

Chris Myers is the Cofounder and CEO of BodeTree and a Partner at BT Ventures. He is also a columnist for Forbes Magazine and a regular contributor for MSNBC.