Loyalty 101

The concept of loyalty has been very receiving a lot of attention the last few days. At risk of stating the obvious, and understanding that we can all benefit from coming back to basics once in a while; here are the elementary principles of loyalty and leadership.

  1. Loyalty to the cause > Loyalty to the leader. A healthy organization understands very clearly that no one person is more important than the task, purpose, or mission they have established as their reason for being. This is essential and non-negotiable. When I have been asked by friends who lead charities if I would consider joining their Board of Directors one of the questions I have to consider is: “Am I willing to fire my friend if that is in the best interest of the organization?”. We have to know where our loyalties lie.
  2. Personal loyalty must be earned. Every organization I know recognizes the advantages of loyalty. It increases engagement, decreases turnover, protects momentum, and accelerates the pace of work. These are only true if that loyalty is based on trust, and trust is a combination of Character and Competence. Trustworthy leaders have loyal followers.
  3. Loyalty is a result, not a requirement. Loyalty is essentially the product of Trust and Time. It cannot be commanded in a healthy organizational culture. Leaders who demand loyalty are pretty much always revealing their insecurity and it doesn’t end well for them or their organization. Cults and despots make loyalty their highest value; mature leaders recognize it as a gift from their followers.
As someone who often talks about the value of long term leadership and encourages friends and leaders I coach to find organizations where they can stay for several years I am a strong advocate of loyalty. I have erred on the side of being too loyal on a few occasions, but I’ll willingly rather risk making that mistake again rather than the opposite one.

Loyalty is a very good thing. And like most good things, it can be twisted, abused, and become very dangerous. But it doesn’t have to. In fact it really shouldn’t.

Healthy leaders remember the basics of loyalty and make them a part of how they lead. Which is great, because doing so makes it a whole lot easier for people to be loyal.