We are judged by the company we keep. More importantly, we are shaped by it.

What role do friendships play in good leadership? For her recent milestone birthday, a dear friend gathered amazing women from different parts of her life and asked us to share wisdom. One of the pieces of advice offered was: “To become your best self, be around people who want to help you flourish.” 

In that room were moms who home-school their children, single women who devoted their lives to the community, executives, and professors. They shared the importance of being quality people who express compassion and authenticity, who show up for both the best and the toughest moments, and who act in service of the greater good.

Our tastes, aspirations, hopes and fears reflect those around us. Our character and priorities are shaped by those we spend time with. We are braver around brave people. And our values slip around those whose own values are weaker. In my advisory practice, I create programs for CEOs, C-suite executives and family business leaders, designed to accelerate their contextual learning, create a peer group for problem solving, and hone their superpowers. One key to success is that I curate based on their humility and relational prowess. If true productivity is less about doing more, and more about a commitment to becoming our best selves, then we need to be more appreciative of character virtues, not solely status or power.

The theologian L Gregory Jones once reminded me of the Aristotelian virtue of friendship. The company we keep can hold us accountable for our hopes, as well as for our vices. In organizations, the norms of a group make up its culture. It is a two-way relationship. Communities or organizations play a role in shaping the character of their individual members, and those individual members are in turn responsible for shaping the shared culture – the underlying value system of the organization. What does this mean for the pursuit of good leadership? Three lessons stand out. 

We do not operate alone

Leadership, as is often said, is a team sport. The understanding that it is about building on each other’s expertise is commonplace, but I argue we should also consider how we foster the good in each other’s character. We should surround ourselves with the best people in terms of both expertise and character, and broaden our networks to those mentors who help build our character and values. 

Think beyond visible fit

Next time you consider joining a team, organization or board, think beyond the ‘visible fit’ and consider the cultural fit as well. Explore culture and values, not just prestige or technical fit. Look for people who embody the qualities you want – wisdom, curiosity, compassion – not just roles you aspire to. And apply the same logic when hiring: do you consistently look beyond candidates’ technical contributions and consider their contribution to a positive culture? 

Focus on culture as a priority

What type of values do you want to uphold? Which are most important? How much do you let your culture and stated values guide decisions? A good culture attracts and retains good leaders and good talent. 

An organization with a good culture can advance innovation, steward responsible values, and generate decisions with positive societal outcomes. It’s certainly true that we are judged by the company we keep. Perhaps more importantly, we are shaped by it.