As I watch people endorsing their friends’ books that they haven’t read, I keep getting reminded of a question that is nagging at the back of my mind.
Which is more important, integrity or friendship?
If you are an analytical thinker or hope to be a thought leader, this is not an idle question.
An analytical thinker has a responsibility to reveal what the data is telling her, regardless of who it might help or hurt. Conversely, if a friend seeks your public endorsement, you have a responsibility to evaluate his book, or position, or political candidacy, or startup, and decide if recommending it is in the best interests of your audience.
Journalists in the press or analysts working for research firms have rules about this stuff. But the thousands of independent thinkers and consultants now blogging, posting on LinkedIn, making Facebook Live videos, and spreading influence in every other imaginable way don’t. Can you trust them? Can people trust you?
So here’s a thought experiment. I want you to imagine two people. One is your best friend from childhood, a trusted confidante (call her Val). The second is a former coworker who is a valuable person in your network (call him Pal). Decide right now, before reading on, who in your life would be Val, and who would be Pal.
Now you are a thought leader. (For many of my readers, this is either already true, or you are working on it.) If Val or Pal asked you to do one of the things on the list below, would you do it? (Count them up and post your count in the comments — or better yet, tell us which ones you’d do, by number.)
- Recommend them for a senior job at a startup that you know they’re not nearly qualified for?
- Provide a blurb for the back of their book, and post about how much you like it on your Twitter and Instagram feeds, even though you’ve read it and it’s not very good?
- Publicly endorse their app that’s buggy and not very useful?
- Tell people to download their white paper which has lots of questionable data in it?
- Share links to their blog post which has parts that you know are plagiarized?
- When their prospective boss calls asking for a reference, tell them that your friend is a great colleague, even though you know they are guilty of sexual harassment?
- When research you have conducted shows that your friend’s public position is completely wrong, refrain from publishing the research?
- Tell people to vote for your friend for Congress even though you think most of their positions are wrong?
- Write an essay at your friend’s request that they will publish as an op-ed in the newspaper under their own byline?
- When reporters ask you, tell them that your friend was a teetotaler in college even though you know they got drunk every weekend?
What can you do?
There are no easy answers here.
If you do what integrity requires, you may lose a friend.
If you do what friendship requires, you may compromise your integrity.
There are hedges. You can publish an endorsement that doesn’t actually endorse (“Val is a hell of a thinker”). You can tell your friend that they’re putting you in an uncomfortable position and ask them to reconsider. You can try to get them to rethink what they’re doing, if you think it is wrong. You can just say “I don’t do the kind of recommendations you ask,” which is probably a lie, and pretend that policy is getting in the way.
Finally, you can tell the truth publicly and hurt your friend’s career, but in the softest and most supportive way possible.
All thought leaders will encounter situations like these and have to make these choices. You may not have to deal with these specific situations, but I guarantee, you’ll deal with ones just like them.
What will you do?