People who lead companies are a curious bunch.

They often have an out-sized personality, even if that means they are really introverted or really controlling. Some have such a winning personality they could sell tree bark for a premium. One of the traits that seem to come up the most, in my experience: Many entrepreneurs have an unusual ability to connect right away with people and can forge lasting relationships, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

Yet, this strong and valuable personality trait has a counter-balance. Those who are unusually gifted at developing relationships often feel as though they should become friends with everyone. And, let's face it, many entrepreneurs can become friends with everyone. I'm sure Elon Musk or Stewart Butterfield both personally know hundreds of their Twitter followers and likely know them on a deeper level. When they host a party, I'm guessing they can walk around the room and talk to dozens and dozens of people on a first-name basis. And, that's mostly a good thing. Having this almost magical ability to connect leads to massive growth.

Except when that isn't really the case.

In a smaller startup, there's a tendency to think you should befriend every employee. You probably could, depending on the size of the company. You maybe have the ability to draw people out like a magnet. I've heard that most of us can handle about 100 close relationships at a time, and most startups are well below that at an early stage. It's the perfect melting pot of personalities for you to use your best gifts. Yet, it's not so perfect.

There's a common understanding about leadership in small business, and I've seen it play out many times. The founder does all of the hiring. Some of the people he or she hires are actually personal friends. Or, the founder connects with a new interviewee. Or, he or she is hands-on with daily tasks and (in many cases) literally sits in the same room as the other employees. I once visited a startup in San Francisco where the entire company worked in one loft apartment and a few of them even lived there. The founder knew everyone on a personal level. He managed to connect so well with each employee that he found something in common with each person. He played disc golf with a few employees. He hung out with them after work. And, he was incredibly stressed out.

Here's what happens when you think leadership is the same as friendship. You create a situation where the only person who connects with everyone else is you. Your entire company hinges on your ability to make friends with everyone, and you are amazingly good at holding this ship together. Yet, the ship is actually only sailing because of your efforts. If you took a step away from the ship, it would sink. If you stopped trying to make friends with everyone, you'd see that no one else is paddling.

There is a better way.

I believe great companies thrive when the leader trusts his employees to make good decisions, encourages them to excel, trains them to embrace their skills and abilities, and steps out of the way so they can push the company forward on their own power. Great leaders let people paddle. More importantly, they let them run their own "business" without having to constantly hang out, grab dinner, play disc golf, and develop the relationship. I'm not saying as a founder you should avoid having friends at work. But the mentality of having to befriend every employee in a real and tangible way just means you are trying to control the outcome of the business too tightly. It also means you will burn out. It's sad because you will fizzle out by using your greatest asset. Stop doing that. Lead in a way that empowers, not befriends.

I have a (ahem) friend who is doing this right now. It's all about him. The guy is so enthusiastic and energetic. He is the "great leader" who builds all of the relationships-not just with employees but with customers and investors. His view of leadership is flawed because he doesn't seem to realize that he has failed to train others how to lead and make their own decisions; he makes every decision. Because he's so good at relationships, the company seems to be running smoothly, but there are holes in the floorboards. He doesn't see how people are not owning their tasks, they just want him to notice their efforts. What they really care about is the boss, not the company.

What about you? How can you step aside and let others excel? How are you blocking employees from owning their tasks? Is your ability to connect and build relationships with employees the one that that is hold the company back? I'm here to help if you have some specific questions about what might be causing some problems in your company.

Published on: Jun 30, 2015