I have watched with disbelief as some people stumble over one another to make an impression on a well-known person, or try to be this leader’s “friend”. Others are intimidated and stay far away.
It was advantageous for me to have worked as a reporter for some time before going into the church world. The copydesk is a most egalitarian place. Editors and reporters alike are working for one common goal — get the news out for publication the next day. Hierarchy and status are set aside.
I also got used to interviewing a CEO one day, and next day, the man in the street. I found everyone to be interesting, everyone to have something to say.
Church was a huge contrast — it was hierarchical and there were people there who just wanted to be seen. So it took some time to figure out who were the people who genuinely wanted to help, and those who were there because of legitimacy issues.
I got to know some pretty good people through church. But I never presume on a friendship that may not be there. That is where I see people stumble.
Leaders are by nature charismatic and friendly. They hold attention on stage; they speak well, usually dress well, and are generally courteous. They can be famous in their area of specialty. Many are attracted to them, and try to find ways to connect with them, sometimes disastrously. A more patient leader may tolerate these intrusions, a more testy leader would immediately cut them out. The more famous the person is, the more testy he can become….
First, as I said, I never presume on a friendship that may not be there. Leaders can and do act friendly — they meet many people, it’s become second nature. But don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s a friend — he’s just friendly. If he has a public email, then email, ask your question, and thank him for his time when he does answer.
Basic courtesy goes a long way. So many people have forgotten basic courtesy — or perhaps they never learnt it — that when you’re courteous and considerate, you stand out.
Then, let the relationship develop — or not. They may be on the way to being a friend with you, but if you start acting familiar with them, getting bold or presumptuous, you risk a breach in the relationship. Don’t base your self-worth on having a famous friend. They’re people too; don’t treat them like an object, a trophy. They won’t like it.
Some leaders have helped me a lot, but they have also said to not hold onto them. Leaders are on a journey, they are going somewhere and your paths are likely to diverge. I put these altruistic leaders in the category of “friends for a season”, people willing to help you for some time. And of course, if they need your help, return the favor. Don’t let it be a one-way street.
If you need to contact them, ask, “How may I contact you?” And let them choose their mode of communication. Some of them are pursued by literally hundreds of people, and are rightfully reluctant to reveal their phone number, especially if they’ve just met you.
In the end, the famous person becomes your friend mainly because of common interests, common values, chemistry and trust. He knows you won’t namedrop him to try and boost your status among your friends and colleagues — I know someone who absolutely hates this and changed his email address when he found that strangers were bragging that they knew him personally because they could write him through his business email!
Be discreet, be trustworthy. The famous person who enjoys your emails may just decide to be your friend.