Loyalty gets a bad rap. Rightfully so.
Misplaced loyalty is at the root of most corruption. It is the cornerstone of most cults. And it is the often the first sign of an organization in downfall.
Merriam-Webster defines loyalty as unswerving allegiance to:
- one’s lawful sovereign,
- a person to whom faithfulness is due, or
- a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product
There’s a lot of concern lately about the application of meaning #1. Our current president demands unwavering loyalty among his staff, his cabinet, his entire administration. He turns on former allies at light speed to berate those who even mildly disagree. He and his media supporters consistently reference “the deep state” of supposed hidden-in-plain-sight bureaucrats determined to undermine his every move. He is even rumored to be embarking on a government-wide purge to remove those not deemed sufficiently supplicant. Most notably, the offense is not disloyalty to country or cause, but rather to the individual. To the person of the president.
I’ve seen similar behavior in other large organizations. The business world is filled with similar stories. Leaders who demand absolute loyalty and deference, and who reject, berate, and remove those who dare contradict or oppose them. The core of most “horrible bosses” stories revolves around this kind of blind raging maniac, red-faced in anger, demanding unwavering agreement.
Most often this is fueled by a ladder of modest successes that, before long, yields a cult of personality that insists the leader can do no wrong. Soon everyone, most of all the leader, is convinced they are infallible, and is deserving of every bit of loyalty they are afforded.
Which brings us to meaning #2: Allegiance to “a person to whom faithfulness is due”. The dictionary example is “a loyal husband”. A divorce rate approaching 50% would indicate loyalty is best if it’s carefully placed. But as we see time and again people are human. They make mistakes. They stray from a rational path. They need correction and guidance. They rarely deserve blind loyalty in the long run.
Unwavering loyalty to an individual is rarely requited. Yes, perhaps favors are doled out. Perhaps promotions and bonuses are proffered to those who are sufficiently obedient. But those who demand blind loyalty virtually never return it in full. They never accept the kind of wavering from their subjects that they demand their subjects tolerate in themselves.
In fact, the best kind of loyalty to a person is honesty. The greatest of leaders surround themselves not with loyal followers, but with honest brokers of the truth. People who will explore issues openly, will point out missteps, and will earnestly work for the betterment of the organization.
Which finally brings us to #3: loyalty to a cause. Here, finally, we reach something where “faithfulness is due”. When you place your unswerving allegiance in a cause, you’re far less likely to be let down. Rather than placing blind loyalty in a person, you place it in an ideal, in a purpose. People, at the very least, will eventually die. At the worst, they will waver and let you down. The best ideals live for generations of leaders, and through the worst of human failings.
This is why, for example, all of the oaths of office for the United States pledge allegiance not to “king and country”, but rather to the Constitution — the cause, the ideal, the institution. The founders clearly knew the failings of humans, they had lived through an endless procession of monarchs prone to failure. They wanted allegiance properly placed in the institutions they were creating.
In my most recent podcast, I stress the importance of organizations building their Mission/Vision framework, to establish their cause. Creating a great mission that establishes the larger goal of the organization. Building purposeful visions to make projects endure through their inevitable hiccups. And to earn loyalty that even persnickety brainpower workers, who yearn for clarity and purpose, can get behind.
Creating organizations based on a solid mission builds an institution that will outlive its leaders. Will endure through the inevitable human failings. That will deserve all the loyalty it can get.