15 Principles of Friendship for Building Organizations that Last

April 9, 2021

Russ Ewell

Note: I recently wrapped up a 13 part series on my Russ Off the Cuff podcast entitled “The Lost Art of Friendship.” Check out the first episode in that series here.

On August 23, 1937, two recently graduated engineers in their early twenties with no substantial business experience met to discuss the founding of a new company. However, they had no clear idea of what the company would make. They only knew that they wanted to start a company with each other in the broadly defined field of electronic engineering.

Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies is one of my favorite books about not just business, but life. The book was published in October of 1994, and a number of the highlighted companies have struggled. Those who dismiss the principles found in this groundbreaking work do so at their own peril. 

The truths found in Built to Last remain true. While those companies considered visionary in 1994 might not be in 2021, any reasonable reading of the principles highlighted can be seen in today’s exemplary companies (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, Walmart, Target, Starbucks, Abbott Laboratories, and if what we see coming out of Intel’s new CEO, I expect they will be joining this list in the next 5-10 years).

Within the pages of this book the most compelling societal fundamental is to have a guiding principle greater than profit, a purpose for the company built on a set of values which serve as the motivation to make the company profitable.

The company described by my opening quote is Hewlett Packard, one of the legendary Silicon Valley startups born in a garage which grew to become a historic Fortune 500 company.

In the pages of Built to Last, we learn “Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard decided to first start a company and then figure out what they would make.” This decision is further evidence that their relationship was the priority at the outset. They wanted to start a company together. Their mentality mirrors the insights from Good to Great, another Jim Collins book.

First Who … Then What. We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats—and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage “People are your most important asset” turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.

Good to Great, Jim Collin

Hewlett Packard is not as significant today as it was then, but there are enduring lessons we can learn from the founders’ legacy. One of those lessons is that they built an innovative company by beginning with a committed relationship.

Bill Hewlett and David Packard launched their company in 1939 and for decades their exemplary building principles were a model of business so compelling it received a name, “the HP Way.”

The interesting truth about Silicon Valley and the companies built here is a number begin with a commitment to relationship. Take a look at the origin stories of companies like Microsoft (Bill Gates and Paul Allen), Apple (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and later Tim Cook), Google (Larry Page and Sergey Brin), as well as the company everyone loves to hate: Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes).

It has become fashionable to poke holes in any assertion about the positive qualities of those whose flaws are apparent to us, and no doubt there are many who will poke away at the aforementioned partnerships. My question is this, can any of us find in our own lives relationships as productive as these over any decade of our lives?

My belief is we can learn an important lesson from Hewlett and Packard as well as these other founding friendships. This was part of my vision when writing “The Lost Art of Friendship.” I sensed we were underestimating the historic importance of friendship, so I took 15 qualities of friendship culled from years of listening and learning about leadership. I studied and researched the history of great leaders, paying particular attention to great partnerships like Franklin and Winston, Grant and Sherman, and of course John and Abigail Adams.

These 15 qualities of friendship are rarely mastered in total, but they are a guiding light for anyone who wants to build an enduring organization, and while not a consistent feature of great companies and organizations, it is in my view the one most capable of creating what Jim Collins envisioned when he wrote Built to Last

“So, what Built to Last was about was not about just building to last, because mediocrity should either be terminated and put out of its misery, or transformed into excellence. It should not just be perpetuated. Built to Last was about building something that is worthy of lasting—building a company of such intrinsic excellence, that makes such a unique and distinctive contribution in some form, in some way, to the world that if that company went away, you would lose some vital piece of the fabric of society.”

Why Built to Last is the Wrong Title, Jim Collins

Here are the 15 qualities of friendship developed from my understanding of the intricate interplay between our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual selves – a combination which when holistically applied, produces friendships capable of building visionary, innovative, and enduring organizations.

  1. Time – time is the currency of friendship, the more we spend the better the relationship.
  2. Initiative – initiative is the evidence of friendship; we go first because we care more about the friendship than our convenience.
  3. Conversation – conversation creates the intellectual (ideas, thoughts, and dreams), emotional (feelings, experiences), and spiritual (purpose and meaning) connections of friendship.
  4. Curiosity – Curiosity is the opposite of conceit. Conceit seeks to tell its own story, curiosity wants to know the other person’s story.
  5. Admiration – admiration turns what others envy and compete with into a source of inspiration and reason for emulation.
  6. Purpose – purpose in friendship establishes deep attachments, the type which go beyond the superficiality of compatibility based on personality, go deeper because they possess a shared belief in our reason for being here.
  7. Loyalty – loyalty makes trust grow in the same way disloyalty makes trust shrink.
  8. Vulnerability – Vulnerability is the glue of friendship. It means we have no fear in the relationship, and it is this absence of fear which creates security.
  9. Empathy – empathy means I understand you, and because I understand you I will protect you.
  10. Transparency – Transparency is emotional and spiritual honesty; it means we have vulnerability and empathy in our friendship.
  11. Forgiveness – Forgiveness is the answer to the question of whether our friendship is authentic or counterfeit. If we forgive it is authentic, but if we refuse to forgive it is counterfeit.
  12. Trust – Trust that endures through the seasons and storms of life is the test which tells us whether our friendship possesses the qualities listed 1-11.
  13. Exceptional Belief – exceptional belief is spirituality, the unwavering faith that our friendship can fulfill the purpose for which destiny has taken hold of us.
  14. Vision – vision is the quality that fills friendship with an uncompromising insistence we finish what we started.
  15. Endurance – endurance in a friendship is the work we do to make each other better when no one else cares, keeps up, or is watching, until we develop in each other the character necessary to build the beautiful life we believe destiny has promised.

These “15 Principles of Friendship for Building Organizations that Last” will be scoffed at by some, ignored by others, and neglected by many. But for those of us who see the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual wisdom of making friendships our most important investment, not only will the quality of our lives improve, but we will become the builders most capable of building organizations capable of making a lasting positive impact on society.