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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

The problem with friends

Q: Israel's deadly attack on Turkish activists now confronts President Obama with a classic challenge for all sorts of leaders: How do you behave when a close friend and ally misbehaves?

Leaders may choose their friends, but they do not control those friends. And so when those friends make trouble, a leader's first responsibility is not to a friend, but to the organization he leads.

This point is even more operative in the case of allies, be it a country or a company. "Nations do not mistrust each other because they are armed," said Ronald Reagan. "They are armed because they mistrust each other." Allies come together for mutual interest; they are not friends per se; they do things for one another not because they like or even respect the other but because it is in their best interest. Countries get together for trade or protection; companies come together to share technology or even customer knowledge. Allies trust each other so far as mutual interest makes it viable.

Friends, on the other hand, trust each other because they respect and like one another. A friend, wrote Aristotle, is "a single soul dwelling in two bodies." Friends watch one another's back because they want to, not necessarily because they have to.

But leaders must approach friendship with caution. David McClelland, the pioneering organizational behavior theorist, argued that leaders had three key needs: achievement, power and affiliation. Of the three, the first two (power and achievement) are paramount; the third (affiliation) is less so. And for good reason: friendship can make decision-making difficult.

Leaders represent a collection of individuals, not individuals per se so they must do what the organization needs them to do, not necessary what a friend needs. Case in point is a promotion. A leader may be tempted to put a trusted associate into a position of authority, but if that person is not qualified to hold the position then the leader is not acting responsibly; he is putting self interest ahead of organizational interest.

With that understanding in place it is easy to make the case that leaders can and should disassociate themselves from friends who make ethical transgressions. If the leader does not reprimand that individual, or disassociate from that person, then the leader's own judgment is called into question. We have plenty of such examples of executives looking the other way during the recent financial crisis. Senior leaders who ignore an ethical issue are themselves subject to blame.

Another issue arises, and it comes from the best intentions. Good leaders want their people to succeed and so when a subordinate makes a mistake, a good leader will want to help correct the problem. This is good practice when the mistakes involve business or organizational issues, but not when the mistakes involve ethics. Failure to discipline the subordinate risks making the leader appear complicity and perhaps culpable.

Leadership is a judgment call. Make the right calls most of the time and you are leading effectively. Do it less frequently and you fail to inspire trust. And when that occurs, your leadership is over.

By John Baldoni

 |  June 1, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: More than a 'tut-tut' | Next: Getting the facts straight


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Being friends with Israel has made us hated around the world. We need to break the friendship and cut off aide to Israel. And Israel must be punished by the Security Counsel in the UN.

Posted by: atomicfront | June 2, 2010 12:14 AM
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The author (Baldoni) certainly poses a mis-leading and provocative question. To be more precise, the question seems to be:

How should the US respond to Turkey, which allowed non government organization to attempt to provocatively violate a legal naval blockade of Gaza, when thre was a peaceful means of delivering aid (through Israel), if delivering aid was their true intent?

Posted by: JWE1 | June 1, 2010 11:36 PM
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The Bible is truly accurate. Hate for Israel will only increase as the Bible prophesied. Doomsday is truly coming.

Posted by: spidermean2 | June 1, 2010 8:54 PM
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I think the government of Israel is a good candidate for some kind of "Dog Whisperer" treatment.

Sure the Israelis have "worked" a great deal with the U.S. in recent years, but I question whether Israel is really a friend of the U.S. if it is so willing to conduct itself in a manner which makes its friendly ally look bad.

But of course Israel itself is not composed solely of U.S. emigres. All of its many citizens of Russian and Eastern European descent could probably give a darn about the U.S.

Posted by: chris3 | June 1, 2010 8:20 PM
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These comments make it clear why business men often make poor diplomats and political leaders.

Posted by: captn_ahab | June 1, 2010 5:16 PM
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