Leadership is not a popularity contest. It's about making the tough choices. If a leader is seen as favoring particular team members, it will lead to the appearance that he/she is not objective and is allowing personal bias to sway his/her decisions. This introduces a dysfunction from which it is impossible to recover.
In David McClelland and David Burnham's HBR paper "Power is the Great Motivator" they highlight three distinct management styles:
Affiliative Managers - Leaders of this type are characterized by (i) a high degree of inhibitions and (ii) a desire to be liked more than a desire to possess power. Think of your leader who doesn't like to make decisions and wants to be popular.
Personal Power Managers - Leaders of this type are characterized by (i) a low degree of inhibitions and (ii) a desire to possess power more than to be liked. Think of the leader who wants to be in control and has no qualms of doing whatever is necessary.
Institutional Managers - Leaders of this type are characterized by (i) a high degree of inhibitions and (ii) a desire to possess power more than to be liked. Think of the leader who gets results but does so while treating all those around him/her with respect.
Your goal is to become an institutional manager. It's this characteristic of a desire for results over friendship combined with a proper degree of restraint and inhibitions that characterizes a great leader.
Rule #4 -- You're not your staff’s best friend. That doesn't mean you don't support and care about them. It simply means that you have a role to teach and lead, and that requires a certain degree of separation.
ACTION ITEM 4 - Find the time to read McClellend and Burnham's HBR article. Prepare a summary and schedule an hour with your staff to go over the concepts. Make sure they understand that while you're on a quest to be a better leader, and you'll be looking to help them in the process, you'll still be holding yourself—and them—accountable.