It’s Not That I don’t Like You

Published: Jun 10, 2021

I learned the hard way about the importance of professional distance. At 23, I was a young, enlisted US Navy Petty Officer onboard a 60’ wooded minesweeper stationed in Charleston, SC. I had a young engineering oiler (technician) that reported to me. I, unfortunately, allowed that relationship to get too close, too chummy, too familiar, and things only degraded from there. Frank (not his real name) got to a point where he felt that he no longer needed to listen to me. At that point in my Navy career, I hadn’t yet learned the military phrase, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Still, I vowed after learning that valuable leadership lesson that I would never make that mistake again.

So when I title this, “It’s not that I don’t like you,” I am referring to the concept that I will (if I had the privilege of being your boss) always keep some distance between you and me. I would be friendly—but not your friend. If you asked me to the bar after work, I’d go, buy the team the first round, and then leave after 17 minutes. It’s good to have a little mystery between you and your subordinates.

I just finished the biography “Washington” by Ron Chernow. Our founding father was all about healthy separation and was very cognizant that his effectiveness was linked to maintaining professional relationships. Washington never let those relationships degrade with familiarity. That’s not to say, as Washington fought the American Revolution, that he didn’t love and respect his officers and soldiers— he did—he just knew how to keep that love and respect going both ways.

When I speak on leadership and, in particular, new leaders, I start here— professional distance. It’s all about the relationship. If we don’t have this, we have nothing.