Lead First – Friend Second – Earn Respect First

The incredible basketball coach, Bobby Knight, coached for decades and he worked with various generations of student athletes. He was asked what his observations were of working with so many different generations of student athletes. Knight responded, “I noticed that today, kids are growing up in a world where too many of their parents are trying to be their friends, and when the parent tries to become the kid’s friend, they end up having to be the kid’s parent for the rest of the kid’s adult life.” Consequently, if you’re a parent to your child first, you will have the joy of being their friend for their adult life.

All leadership roles are like that. It is important to be a leader first, especially early on in the formative years. If you do your job of being a leader first, your people respect that. They admire and appreciate it. Later on, they understand why you did the things you did, and why you held them accountable and had such high expectations for them. It’s not fun to do those things, but you push people to do those things as a leader. That is good leadership, and it pays off for you and for them. Later on, your people will realize that you are someone they can trust because you care about them. Once they realize that, you have the joy of being friends with your people. But if you try to become friends first, you will never be able to be their leader.

The first challenge of this principle is the popularity factor. This is especially true for younger people going into the workplace who are young developing leaders. Some of them are going to be asked to be leaders amongst their peers and people who are older and more experienced than they are. Being captain of an athletic team is a great example of this. That’s a tough spot. I have a lot of respect for today’s youth who are captains of teams. During the day, they’re best friends at lunch and hanging out after school, but on the field, they have to be a leader among their peers. The coach might tell the captain to talk to a teammate about their attitude or effort. The challenge is figuring out how to be an authoritative leader without ruining your relationships.

Would you rather be respected or liked? Leadership is about respect first, and respect is not based on title, it is earned. Sometimes certain titles warrant respect, but let’s face it – people respect individuals because they have earned it. You earn that respect by being firm, having high expectations, and being a leader first. Once you earn that respect, friendship will form because you are trustworthy. Your people know that you they can confide in you; they know that you are not going to hold back or blow smoke. They know that if there is an issue, they can tell you about it. That is good leadership.

You have to ask yourself if there are instances where you’re being too much of a friend and not enough of a leader. For me, there are instances in my life where I’m not being a leader and I’m being too much of a friend, and it impacts the people I’m trying to lead. It doesn’t impact me all that much, but it impacts them. I need to remember to step up and be the leader first because that’s my job. Someone has to do it. Someone has to be the one to tell my kids how to behave. If I’m leading a group of people and one of them reports to me and he’s not performing, and I don’t tell him that because I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, then shame on me. I’m not doing my job.

When your commitment is “other” focused, meaning it’s about them, you can be a great leader. You know it’s not about you and you try to convey that, and you hope, deep down, your people respect that. It’s like telling your friend that you think he has a chemical dependency. It takes courage to sit that friend down and tell him that you think he needs help because you’ve noticed his behavior and decision-making lately, and it’s not good. But if you do sit down with your friend and tell him these things, it demonstrates that you care deeply about him. That is the most sincere type of friendship.   When someone who really cares tells you the truth and risks damaging the friendship, it is infinitely better than the group of friends who don’t want to say anything about your friend’s chemical dependency because they might hurt his feelings. Later on, your friend will thank you, because you were a great friend. You were courageous. You were a leader.

Remember, it’s always about them. I keep repeating that because it’s vital to being a successful leader. Even if the person you led never comes to respect you, you will know that you did your best as a leader because you were always focused on that person’s well-being.

Leaders do not conform. Conformity makes leaders ordinary. The first person who tried to climb Mount Everest did not stop and say, “Well, that looks really hard. Besides, no one has ever done that before.” Instead, that person looked up and said, “I think I can do it.”