A Better Way to Work: With Friends

Post by

A fearful leader robs himself of his rightful and natural reward: joy, meaning, and connection. 

Most often the fear is subtle but pervasive. It secretly creeps into every part of our lives. It’s like a companion we aren’t aware of and we’d rather not have. It even twists our language.

It was common on my teams to hear colleagues describe our lives as having a “work-life” and a “personal-life.” How can I have a life — a “work-life” — separate from my only life? 

These concocted separate lives help us beat back the tide of fear and keep harmony: there are work-life rules and personal-life rules. And Rule #1 is my work-life is separate from my personal-life. As children, rules help keep us safe. 

Leaders, we are not children. 

Safety is not our primary concern. Yet we create rules to handle the inevitable collisions when our worlds collide. 

At work, most people head off the fear of collision by fitting themselves into one of two work-life” buckets. Group 1 is the Business First crowd. Group 2 is the Friends First crowd. 

The Business First group is the prevailing ideology that defines work-life as separate from personal-life. Their motto: profits over people. These moribund bean counters coined the term Human Resources – as if people are a commodity, ubiquitous units to be measured and no different than a faceless kilowatt hour of electricity that keeps the lights on. I once ended a months-long project with these types of folks and the most I could say about their personal lives is their Starbucks order: a tall black. 

The Friends First crowd is the prevailing opposition to the Business First maxis. They form social cliques to assert power through influence instead of aptitude. The quality of their social cohesion matters more than the quality of their work. Their motto is “one for all, and all for one (until I’m up for promotion).” I watched one executive decision push a group of sales reps to band together. They called their partner accounts to ask them to complain to the executives in the hope of overturning the decision in the sales reps’ favor. The mini-coup failed when a few reps realized they were close to a promotion and backed out -- not wanting to upset their bosses —  leaving their comrades to take the fall.

Both groups are misguided: it’s not profits or people. It’s the pursuit of excellence with authentic people you care about. It’s profits with your people. It’s winning with your friends. 

Not just any friends though. I have many different types of friends: fishing buddies, drinking pals, the golf foursome, brothers, surfing mates. Work friends are a distinct type of friend. 

The foundation for all work friendships is collaboration; working together towards a mutually chosen mission. I can’t be friends with someone at work that is incapable of doing the job, that is incapable of helping the mission. You don’t invite someone into your foxhole that isn’t capable of helping you fight your way out. 

After my first basketball season in college, half the team quit because we were so bad and dysfunctional. Those that stuck around and worked together became the best team in university history two years later. We’re lifelong friends because we fought our way out of the foxhole together.

Teamwork is the human super power. As Yuval Noah Harari says, “We control the world because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers.”

The Friends First crowd errs by subverting the mission and the hierarchy of competence in favor of political and personal favors. This rots the organization from the inside. First, the mission becomes lost. Then, overtime, the quality of work deteriorates as people realize that relationships matter more than performance; get in with the right crowd and you stand a better chance. I moved to another continent when I was passed over for a promotion because my competitor’s boss was more influential and was able to award the job without even a job posting or an interview process. Friends help friends circumvent standards. 

The Business First crowd errs in that their lives devolve into a meaningless treadmill rat race. The thing they want is always just out of reach. Nothing outshines the goal: the IPO is always 18 months away; my stock vests at the end of the year; I was promised a promotion yesterday. The future wholly consumes the present. The joy of the journey is totally lost within their myopic focus on the finish line – that they never quite reach. 

Life is too short to live in either of these camps. I don’t know what the point of life is, but I know that it is closer to living a life of meaning, a life of enjoyment with foxhole friends, than it is to maximizing the wealth created by a business — a fictional entity of organization created by a tax code. 

I want to work with people that bring me joy, that believe what I believe, and wish to accomplish a grand mission together. 

John Wooden, maybe the greatest basketball coach of all time, lists Friendship as a foundational block of his Pyramid of Success. He defines Friendship within his teams as Respect and Camaraderie. A great place to start, but it’s incomplete. 

In Wooden on Leadership, Coach Wooden tells the tale of one of his favorite former players telling him years later that he was sure Wooden disliked him. 

Coach Wooden “was unhappy to hear this information.” 

Wooden won all those championships, and yet, his relationships were so business-first that a player he “liked perhaps as much as any [he] ever coached” didn’t even know if he was liked. 

That is not a life I want to live. I am a diehard believer in winning. It is paramount. Not because winning is the pinnacle of life, but because winning is the direct result of doing things with love, care, and attention. Winning, over the long haul, is the direct result of doing things in the right way with the right people. With your people. With your team. 

I once met a mastercraftsman who designs and builds horse-drawn carriages for royalty. Each carriage takes 5 to 6 years to complete. The mastercraftsman showed me around his workshop with all the pride he had rightfully earned over his seven decades. He made a special point to highlight the royal insignia hand-painted on the carriage doors. “These are the best in the world and they’re painted right here by my wife.” How about that for a foxhole friend! Winning with your wife. 

Winning is not more important than relationships, than friendships, than love, than intimacy. 

Wooden’s definition of friendship is lacking. It is missing intimacy and authenticity. The sharing of our personal experience with others, our wants and fears about our joint mission. 

Work with friends. Chase grand missions. Strive to win – yes, of course – but above all, work with those you love being around. Life is too short for anything else.

Share this article on social media


Dave Shepherd

Welcome! This is my online home, 'get started' to get a bit about me and what interests me.
Start Here