Are you a leader or a friend?

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Although I served in the Israeli Army – I was what they called a “simple soldier”, a communications tech in a van. Our officer was glad that we kept things working – and that was fair enough we thought. After grad school, serving in the armies of high-tech samurai, I learned that commanders fight with the troops but leaders lead from the front – and being a friend of the troops disables your effectiveness as an effective leader/manager.

My friend Isaac Botbol has a leadership training business – he conveyed this message perfectly in his last news letter – “Are you a leader or a friend?”

A while back, I was conducting a leadership skills workshop for the English speaking managers and supervisors of a construction company. I was struck by both, the honesty and sheer frustration of one of the team leaders. He said that he felt discouraged because his front line Hispanic team members didn’t treat him with the respect he deserved. I asked him to relate some of the main aspects of his everyday workplace activities and; more importantly, to describe how he interacts with his non-English speaking Hispanic team members.

His answer was truly memorable. “I work alongside my Hispanic employees” he claimed proudly. “When they dig trenches, I’m right there with them. They know that I can work just as hard as they do.” As he continued to share his situation with us, it became obvious that he felt disappointed and frustrated. He hesitantly admitted that “in spite of all my efforts, I know they sometimes joke about me in Spanish. Some of my team members don’t even know my name.”

First, as a group, we congratulated this young man for his brutal honesty. After hearing his particular challenge, I explained that although his heart was in the right place, the process he was following was not conducive to effectively managing or leading his team members.

It’s certainly admirable that this supervisor wanted to bond with his team members. It’s definitely a good idea to always work on gaining the employees’ trust. However; by offering himself as “one of the boys” he gave up whatever authority his job title carried. On the way to becoming a friend to his crew, he lost the ability to lead them. In fact, it wasn’t long before some of his team members were actually telling this supervisor what to do.

For the participants in the workshop, this was a stark example of a leadership process gone wrong. The root of the problem was that this supervisor felt inadequate in not being able to communicate in Spanish with the employees. In order to gain their buy-in, he overcompensated by becoming their good friend and “buddy” and by working with them in the trenches. Unfortunately, this does not mix well. You are either a leader or team member, but certainly not both!

As much as we would like to break through the cultural and language barriers, it’s important not to lose sight of our responsibilities and roles as leaders. Front line Hispanics in the workplace look for leaders they can respect and admire. They are not in the corporate competition game. They have a high regard for leaders who are decisive and deliberate in their actions. They expect leaders to maintain a ‘professional distance’. This means that you understand that there is a fine balance between earning the respect of the employees while taking an active interest in their growth and development. To the Hispanic employees it means that leaders are a source of accurate information as well as someone who supports them when the chips are down.

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