Does leadership have to be a lonely venture? Listen to some of the most prominent voices on leadership, within Christian circles and beyond, and you will be reminded that leadership more often than not brings with it a measure of aloneness.
The leader will, at times, find himself or herself standing alone. And the experience can make one feel as though there is no one else who fully understands the burden of decisions and pressure. A 2012 survey reported half of all CEOs expressed feelings of loneliness in their work.
Christian leaders are not immune.
Though there are unique burdens to bear, friendship is essential for a Christian leader. I remain a relatively young man with a limited leadership role entrusted to me. But in my experience and reflection, I am convinced friendship is vital to joyful and effective leadership. Friendship is more than a luxury afforded only to the fortunate few. It is part of what it means to be human, to live a good life. And leaders are not, thanks be to God, exempt from that divine design.
Friendship is more than a luxury afforded only to the fortunate few. It is part of what it means to be human.
As historian Martin Marty wisely noted, “The quality of friendships or the absence of them tells more about the lives of great people than most other features.” In the hyper-individualistic West, I fear we miss this ancient truth. But consider it for a moment. Many great figures in Christian history depended on friendship in their vocation.
Here are three lessons I continue to learn by God’s grace, and will for the rest of my life.
1. A true friend tells you the truth.
Our relationships mirrors the divine fellowship. And that kind of friendship is built on truth telling. The Christian faith holds this as integral. Fellowship with God requires truth telling, finding that the God of the cosmos has spoken his Word to us, revealing himself to his creatures as an act of friendship. He is therefore fully trustworthy, worthy of adoration and faith.
At their truest and best, our human friendships reflect this reality. Friends tell us the truth about others, ourselves, and the gospel.
Leadership is predicated on forming judgments and determining a wise course of action. These necessarily involve judgments about others, including those we’re called to lead. I’ve often found my judgments misinformed or incomplete, and I needed a true friend to provide me with a more accurate perspective. When someone disappoints the leader, it’s easy to dismiss them or assume the worst. But a friend explains there is more going on than meets the eye. Friends help us assume the best about others. And when needed, they also caution and warn against those who present themselves as allies, but have set themselves against the organization’s mission. We need both. Only a friend will do that for a leader.
Friends are also necessary to tell us the truth about ourselves. Like all humans, leaders are tempted to believe their own press. Sin and pride make us quick to understimate our weakness and overestimate our abilities and virtues. A colleague may reinforce those blind spots, whether out of unvarnished sycophancy or fear of disappointment. But a friend steps in and, with near prophetic courage, calls us to account. Do you see your friends as gifts of grace to protect you from yourself?
Do you see your friends as gifts of grace to protect you from yourself?
Most importantly, a Christian friend tells us the truth about the gospel. They keep the good news before us in concrete and personal terms. A friend reminds the leader that they’re a sinner, that they need daily grace, and that any good thing—even their leadership ability—is entirely a gift. A friend reminds us that the most important thing about us is not our organizational success or status, but our identity in Christ. A friend presses us to hope in what is enduring, not in what is fleeting.
2. A true friend is motivated by love, not self-interest.
Friendship is preferential love. Not only do we prefer some above others, but Christian friendship means we prefer others—our friends—above ourselves.
We can be friendly with many people, but true friendship is rare. Our lives are embedded within institutions and organizations that, by necessity, demand a culture of friendliness. We see colleagues in the hallway, at meetings, at social functions. And certainly a broad culture of warmth, courtesy, and amicable goodwill is an essential characteristic of healthy organizational ethos. But true friendship that extends beyond professional conversations and sheer transactionalism is a rare gift.
The reason for this is an ancient truth rooted in the beginning of all things. We are made for God, to be sure, but we are also made for others. At the center of this design is the dynamic force of love. Self-interest draws us to see others as opportunities for transactions, beings from whom I can make a withdrawal to satisfy my needs for security, affirmation, validation, and pleasure. But love, which is part of the overflow of Trinitarian relations, is not self-seeking. It is self-giving.
The commodification of friendship is seen in the countless ways we look to people to render us some sort of service. Instead of mirroring the intra-Trinitarian fellowship of joy, friendship is traded for something far less. Because of sin, all of us are prone to distorted and skewed realities in our friendships. But Christian leaders need to be mindful of the specific ways self-interest can subtly masquerade as friendship. It may yield something that has the appearance of friendship, but is a lethal counterfeit.
3. A true friend remains when your leadership fails.
At some point, your leadership will wane. Age will bring this about naturally, but failure has a way of accelerating the process too. It’s one thing to find yourself in a season of success surrounded by many who appear to be friends. But what happens when your company fails, your organization goes bankrupt, or your reputation is no longer about competence and skill?
The Bible presents a picture of friendship enduring: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17). While your siblings are there in moments of crisis, your friends are present in all life’s ups and downs. We don’t get to choose our siblings; they are providentially assigned. But there is a voluntary nature to friendship that makes it all the sweeter. A friend can reject and spurn us. That elective dynamic makes friendship a risky venture, but one that holds potential for unspeakable joy and love.
If you’re a leader and think you’re surrounded by friends, don’t be too sure. On the other hand, don’t let awareness of the fickle and opportunistic nature of professional relationships make you crudely cynical. A far more biblical and wise tact is to approach relationships with a measure of realism. Cynicism will compound your loneliness and make you distrust others, robbing you of opportunities for the joy of friendship. Realism will give you a clear-eyed appreciation for genuine friendship and protect you from disillusionment when others disappoint you.
Friendship is a risky venture, but it holds potential for unspeakable joy and love.
A true friend will be there when all else is gone. This kind of loyalty and steadfastness is a sign, pointing us to an even greater reality—to the One who perfectly embodies friendship. It surely is as the hymn writer said, “Jesus! What a friend for sinners! Jesus! Lover of my soul / Friends may fail me, foes assail me, he, my Savior, makes me whole.”
Acquaintances vs. Friends
You likely have fewer friends than you realize. In an age of social media and pseudo-friendships, there is a noxious counterfeit that easily misleads us. You may have hundreds of acquaintances, but chances are you have only three or four true friends. If that sounds disappointing, perhaps you’ve misunderstood the nature of friendship and so are routinely frustrated by misplaced expectations.
Many of us have confused what C. S. Lewis clarified in distinguishing between friendship and companionship:
Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”