I talk a lot about what it takes on a personal level to be a good and resourceful leader. About the disciplines and practices that we should pay attention to and build for ourselves to ensure that we remain resourceful and healthy – the importance of rest and sleep and rejuvenation, of reflective practices, of eating well and exercising. Blah blah blah. I wang on constantly about books to read and new tools and techniques to try.
And yet, in all of that, I don’t think I’ve mentioned even once my most tried-and-tested go-to remedy that I do in real-life-actual-fact seek out without fail whenever I have something gnarly to contend with.
I call a friend.
I call a friend when I want to rant, and when I want to celebrate, when I am lonely, when I am scared, when I’m all puffed up, and when I’m deflated. I call a friend.
So today, I want to talk about friendship. Specifically, to mark International Women’s Day, I want to talk about the friendship of women.
In our culture, we know how to talk about familial love, and about romantic love. We also know how to talk about colleagues and professional relationships. But when it comes to friendship, we are either oddly coy or we render the whole concept a bit cheap and meaningless by defining it so widely as to include anyone we’ve ever snapped or linkedin with.
Real friendship is vastly underappreciated. It is muscular and enduring and rewarding. It brings perspective and challenge, joy and comfort. It bears witness, it heals us, it grounds us and lifts us. It tells us we can fly and keeps our feet firmly on the ground. It stretches us and humbles us and helps us grow.
I have had two very different encounters with dear friends in the past couple of weeks.
The first was a cheeky afternoon at the spa, with a friend with whom I have so much in common that we barely need to speak. That doesn’t stop us though – brought up on opposite coasts of Scotland, five years and forty miles apart, both of us learned how to do friendship at the knee of fierce and funny women, who knew how to talk. Women who bore witness to each other’s heartbreak and told it slant – with the driest wit and cutting humour, around a kitchen table hung with cigarette smoke. On and on we talked, sitting in the sauna like some high-end London version of The Steamie, covering everything from careers to lipstick to terminal illness, laughing until we cried and crying until we laughed.
The second was a long-planned lunch with another friend to mark a difficult anniversary. It could have been a bleak and difficult occasion, but we had planned it carefully, with just enough formality and ritual to keep us safe. Oh, and martinis. Our conversation was wide and deep and intentional. This friend and I have years and years of friendship under our belts, but we are also very different in interesting and important ways. In one particular moment, we hit a topic that we don’t tend to talk about much with each other. It felt weird and awkward, until we realised that each of us was holding outdated assumptions about the other’s views. Once we had clocked that, we were able to straighten things out, and to make a plan for how that issue could show up in our friendship now and in the future.
These stories, for me, illustrate the range and texture of friendship, what it demands of us, and what it gives. True friendship is easeful and honest, but also encompasses difference and so requires us, sometimes, to work at things – to create rituals, to hold each other safely, to challenge assumptions, to get awkward. In other words, friendship requires what leadership requires, and what all relationships worth anything require – namely that we show up authentically, with courage, curiosity and love.
If I could offer one hard-earned, joyful lesson for International Women’s Day, it’s this – love your friends and your friendships hard. Don’t neglect or overlook them just because society thinks friendship is only selfies and BFF necklaces. Your friendships are the goji berry, HIT training, eight-hours-sleep, ultimate magic tool in your leadership toolkit.
And more, much more than that, your friends are your mojo and your meaning. They are your people. So here is my love letter this International Women’s Day to all the fierce and beautiful friends in my life. You know who you are. Thank you. I love you.
The friendship of women
is where I’ll live out my days. I love
this ramshackle house, its walls daubed with memories,
bookshelves bowed with adventure and romance,
the cupboards full of all the common things
we never need but can’t let go – a sombrero,
a fish kettle, ex-lovers, reckless tattoos,
ideas piled on every surface, bundles
of arguments stuffed behind cushions like unpaid bills,
the kitchen table strewn with threadbare maps
of places we’ve been and places we’ve yet to go.
Niggling doubts are pinned on the fridge, a casserole
bubbles on the stove, seasoned with tears.
Dregs of laughter lie sticky and golden in glasses,
ashtrays overflow with spluttered punchlines,
and a half-told anecdote, still smoking.
The friendship of women smells of cumin and onions© Jen Emery 2022
and when I slink back from the hunting dark
the cold still on my coat, it is my home