Loyalty is often seen as positive, but when it is used as leverage in the exercise of leadership, it can be devastatingly destructive for both perpetrators and receivers. The simple truth is that loyalty-driven leadership is deeply flawed and unsustainable. With some help, however, it is possible for leaders to shed the dysfunctional habits involved and adopt a more effective leadership approach.
The underlying logic
A few years ago, a prominent politician was quoted as explicitly asking for loyalty from a senior leader he had the power to replace. This incident brought to mind a recognizable leadership pattern that is all too prevalent in organizations. Loyalty-driven leaders present a fear-based scenario where they describe those outside of their team as the enemy and put themselves forward as able to protect team members willing to pledge their loyalty. Their proposition is straightforward: in exchange for the unquestioned loyalty of those who work for them, loyalty-driven leaders promise to keep the enemies at bay. Essentially, the script of such a leader aims to create a state of siege by proposing that “this is a big, bad world out there with people wanting to thwart us, you stick with me, and I will have your back.”
This approach manifests itself as an implicit contract between the leader and those who work for him/her. Of course, this is the thinly disguised version of an imposing leadership style which stems from an insatiable need for control. Loyalty-driven leadership requires blind fealty and asks people to do as they are told while suspending the exercise of judgment. In the end, loyalty-driven leadership disables self-initiative.
Fear is integral to this loyalty-driven contract, and this emotion is simply corrosive when pervasive in a team. It is the source of multiple dysfunctions, the most destructive of which are the lack of trust and the inability to partner with other parts of the organization. Collaboration is actively discouraged in the context of this leadership contract because it erodes the sense of siege, an essential condition to enforce the loyalty contract. With negated self-initiative and insufficient trust to exchange openly with people outside of their group, team members see learning, innovation, and performance ultimately languish.
Loyalty-driven leaders can be quite appealing at first for some team members because it fulfills their “we/they” view of the world – hence their willingness to trade loyalty for protection. Others have more difficulty with the implied constraints of this contract. To deter those who may be tempted to resist their authoritative ways, leaders typically maintain a clear distinction between team members who are on the “in’s” and those who are on the “out’s” depending on whether they are perceived as toing the line. This distinction is made obvious in order to create the required level of fear to keep team members acquiescing to the implicit understanding underlying the loyalty contract. This is illustrated for instance when loyalty-driven leaders are given record-breaking positive ratings in engagement surveys in spite of being deeply-resented by those who experience this suffocating form of leadership.
Although this pattern can be maintained for years, it carries the seeds of its own ultimate failure – in the end, it is a ramp to nowhere. After blaming other managers in the organizations for their untoward intentions, the loyalty-based leader eventually loses credibility as it becomes increasingly evident that she/he is ineffective at managing both vertical and horizontal relationships in the organization.
Leaders sometimes adopt this approach as a basic survival strategy due to perceived adversities they find in the workplace. Others espouse it because they have experienced it firsthand and do not realize that they could be so much more effective by adopting a more influenced-based approach.
My experience as an executive coach has shown that it is possible to bring loyalty-driven leaders to understand how negative and costly this approach can be to themselves, their team members, and the organization. The following is an outline of how this can be achieved:
First step: Demonstrate the unsustainable nature of this leadership approach
The most effective intervention is often the simplest: hold a mirror to these leaders and help them gain self-awareness of their impact on the people around them. They often can change their ways once they see the consequences of the dynamics they engender.
Second step: Insert new habits into the actual leadership practice
Helping them shift to a healthier influence-based approach by gradually replacing oppressive leadership habits to adopt a more positive and open leadership style. In essence, the change involves moving from a “push” to a “pull” style of interactions with team members. This shift would involve a sequence where the leader would:
Declare leadership intentions to his/her team;
Initiate a 360-degree feedback exercise that would include suggestions on the part of team members for what the leader could do to enhance his/her leadership;
Select a sequence of new behaviours to insert into his/her leadership practice to realize the declared commitment, including greater listening, following through on feedback and suggestions received, modelling collaboration and partnering within and outside the team, and jointly setting mutual expectations with team members.
Third step: Monitor the outcomes to verify whether
Team members are committed to achieving shared goals;
The leader is seen as fair-minded and responsive to team members’ needs;
Team members feel they can more freely exercise judgment and self-initiative;
Team members find that they are engaged in decisions affecting how the team functions;
Levels of collaboration within the team and partnering outside the team improve;
The team’s overall performance improves.