There is nothing more degrading than the friendship of wolves; avoid that above all.
~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XI.15
Most of my clients are CEOs, and an important aspect of the role that few people consider before launching a venture or pursuing a career in senior leadership is that it's lonely. Leaders must be friendly with employees, investors, customers, and other stakeholders, and yet in all of those relationships there are inevitably factors that complicate or even preclude true friendship. Leaders often begin their career with a rich network of friends from school and work, but as they grow more senior these relationships can founder as differences emerge in professional trajectories. And leaders can find important sources of interpersonal support by working with a personal coach like me or with a peer group such as a YPO chapter, but by definition these relationships exist in structured circumstances, at specific times, with defined boundaries.
As a result, leaders can find themselves engaged with a large number of people over the course of a given day and yet feel profoundly alone. This can leave leaders vulnerable to the friendship of wolves--insincere expressions of care and interest from people whose agendas may not be aligned with the leader's best interests. And this danger is compounded in tightly-networked industries where people socialize frequently with colleagues and confidential information is highly valuable and travels quickly. (Sound familiar?)
And yet we're intensely social creatures who struggle--and even suffer--when we lack the requisite amount of interaction with people who we trust. So if you're a senior leader, what can you do?
- Get out of the role: Cultivate relationships in groups and settings where people have a common interest outside of work, where job titles are irrelevant, and where status derives from sources other than professional accomplishment. Be known for your skills (or lack thereof) as a rock climber, ballroom dancer, horseback rider, weightlifter--anything other than leader.
- Treat family like family: A leader's need to discuss work can easily extend beyond family members' capacity to listen. (This is one reason why coaches like me have a job.) I'm not suggesting that work shouldn't be discussed at home, but insure that family members feel empowered to set limits on those conversations in order to make room for other topics and other ways of interacting.
- Treat friends like treasures: Some of the most important people in a leader's life are those few individuals who are A) successful enough to avoid feeling threatened by or jealous of the leader's status, B) sophisticated enough to understand and empathize with the leader's challenges, C) invested in the leader as an individual and NOT invested in the leader's company, and D) completely trustworthy. Over the course of your lifetime you may meet just a handful of people who fit all of these criteria--when you do, recognize how rare and valuable they are.
- Beware the wolves: Leaders attract people with a wide range of motives, and while the cost of cynicism is isolation, there's also a cost to naivete. It's important to test for trust and to admit people into closer confidence over a series of repeated interactions. You may have to work with wolves at one time or another, but successful co-existence requires you to see them for who they are, with no illusions about their professed friendship.
- Start now: A theme in my practice is the price leaders pay when they wait too long, and it's particularly steep when it comes to the activities discussed here. You can't magically create true friends in a time of need if you haven't been investing in those relationships--only wolves will heed that call.
Actual wolves--the four-legged-kind--are spectacular creatures, and the world would be poorer without them. Join me in donating to the International Wolf Center.
Photo by Ronnie Macdonald. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.