Which is more important, integrity or friendship?

Photo: Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy via Politico

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.)

  1. Recommend them for a senior job at a startup that you know they’re not nearly qualified for?
  2. 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?
  3. Publicly endorse their app that’s buggy and not very useful?
  4. Tell people to download their white paper which has lots of questionable data in it?
  5. Share links to their blog post which has parts that you know are plagiarized?
  6. 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?
  7. When research you have conducted shows that your friend’s public position is completely wrong, refrain from publishing the research?
  8. Tell people to vote for your friend for Congress even though you think most of their positions are wrong?
  9. Write an essay at your friend’s request that they will publish as an op-ed in the newspaper under their own byline?
  10. 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?

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  1. Josh, this is a really timely article for me as I’m wrestling with this question right now. If a book is written by someone I respect and want to help but it doesn’t resonate with me, I try to say who might get value from it. I might prefer “evidence-based, meaty, thought provoking” books but I could honestly recommend a book to people who like “practical and accessible tips and tools.” I’m also thinking about how to address this conundrum when I ask people to review my forthcoming book. Thanks so much for sparking this conversation.

    1. I prefer the same books. I really have a tough time endorsing listicle-type books. I like Josh’s idea of saying that the person is putting me in an uncomfortable position.

  2. Your blog today is a depressing example of why people fall for fake news, mistrust almost everything and everybody, and abandon their own moral compasses. Compromising personal integrity for short-term gain is a losing strategy. At the final analysis you’re stuck with your own reputation and your own sense of self-worth. Truth trumps (sorry) bullshit.

  3. Tough call. Blurbs are often “marketing” – for both the author and the person being asked to write them. Are they really about the book or more about the quality of the person to cover this topic (even if the topic isn’t valuable to you, personally)?

  4. There seems to be a premise implicit in each of these questions which, in most cases, would be very unlikely. The premise is that a person of integrity and competence (you) would have as a valued, long-time friend and confidant someone who is of relative incompetence, self-unawareness, and/or lacking integrity (Val). It seems unlikely that one’s “Val” would not ask or expect such behaviors as listed.

    It is more conceivable for a person of integrity and competence to have a casual acquaintance or business associate that is of more questionable character, as sometimes one does not get to choose their casual associates. Sometimes “stroking” (metaphorically speaking) those casual associates can have benefits, but if it could threaten one’s own reputation, such benefits almost always make it a no-brainer to choose personal integrity.

    1. Ah, how I wish this were true.

      Our friends are often imperfect and have character flaws.

      What you are correct about is that there are often people we’re less close to who want to exploit what relationships we do have.

      Every person of prominence finds themselves in these situations at some point. The more prominent you are, the more likely this is to happen.

  5. Per a coffee mug: ‘A friend is not someone you use and discard, a friend is someone you can use repeatedly’. Integrity is not a binary function – and public claims of virtue are not the exclusive domain of hypocrites but generally a warning signal.
    Behavior varies with the percieved stakes in most situations and few people are capable of dealing with inconvenient truths – we lubricate our social interactions with ‘acceptable lies’. Bullshit (per Harry Frankfurt) is distinguished from lies in that the originator does not care about their position and as such is more insidious in its effects than deliberate falsification where, at least there is intent and knowledge of the underlying facts.