The loyalty trap

July 21, 2012 3 min read

I have few regrets in my life. But years ago, I did something that made me a much smaller person. There are good reasons for it: I had a young family and I really needed the job. Nevertheless, I’ve wished for almost fifteen years that I could have made a better decision.

I was working in a part of a company where the unit founder (I was his second in command) had been great in the early days of the group’s history, but the corporate leaders decided to hire someone “with more experience in the industry” to take over. On his first day, the new boss cornered me and let me know that in an upcoming high-level meeting, I was expected to support him completely or I would no longer be with the unit. In that meeting, the new boss recommended that the original unit founder be removed completely, then I was asked for my opinion. I knew that the founder was very good for the unit, and he was a friend. But I needed to keep my job. I reluctantly agreed with my new boss that the founder had to go. And have hated myself for that to this day.

I have come to believe that the motivation behind unreasonable demands for personal loyalty is usually fear: “I’m not good enough to command loyalty unless I command it.”

It was certainly true in this case. Within a couple of years, the unit was a shadow of its former self in terms of budget and impact. The new boss did not have the chops to do what the founder had been able to do. The fearful new boss lost great human assets (and respect) and made silly business decisions in needless attempts to shore up a personal power base. 

Loyalty is a powerful need. We are all loyal to: a person, an organization or a cause. And I suppose we all crave some personal loyalty. But the best leaders—those with the most loyal following I’ve ever encountered—are those who manage to shift the object of loyalty away from themselves to bigger more important causes, ideally some higher order (“moral purpose”) such as life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. It can even be some greater good, like the nation or neighbors or even customers. It is a joy to show loyalty to someone who is basing decisions on issues that you yourself believe make the world a better place.

Having been in the education industry for most of my life, I know that I’ll follow a leader to the ends of the earth if what they are proposing is something that can create a better experience for students or for more profound learning. Those are “causes” to which I am extremely loyal. 

Then there are the faux attempts at loyalty shifting. There is nothing sadder to me than the leader who says something like: “Don’t do this for me, do it for the good of the team…. ”  They always leave off the clause “… the team which I lead and control.” When you hear the phrase, “Do it for the company.” Always ask yourself if what is being sought is anything more than a call for personal loyalty.

Years ago, I pledged my loyalty to a boss to keep my job—in that case, my real loyalty was to my kids; they needed a parent who could provide for them. If I were in the same situation today, I might still end up having do the same thing again, but I would desperately seek a way out of it.

But that incident was the beginning of learning a great lesson: great leaders will never put their people in that position, no matter how much they need a little loyalty.