When it Gets Ugly, Leadership Matters – the High Cost of Loyalty

The Pied Piper

To Ponder:

Marcus Tullius Cicero (circa 50 B.C.): “Nothing is more noble; nothing is more venerable, than loyalty.”

Machiavelli, The Prince (1532): “A prince ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.”

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter and abolish it ….”

Henry Steele Commager comments (1945) regarding McCarthy Senate communism loyalty hearings, in Who is Loyal to America?

“Who among American heroes could meet their tests, who would be cleared by their committees? Not Washington, who was a rebel. Not Jefferson, who wrote that all men are created equal and whose motto was ‘rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.’ … or Wilson, who warned that our flag was ‘a flag of liberty of opinion as well as of political liberty’; or Justice Holmes, who said ‘we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death.'”

Donald Trump (2007) in Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life: “I value loyalty above everything else—more than brains, more than drive and more than energy.”

Andy Smarick (2017) in Dangers of Loyalty: “We have to recognize that loyalty will inevitably come into conflict with other principles — truth, justice, morality, etc. … [L]oyalty is vexing because fidelity to one thing requires infidelity to another.”


This blog is Part III of a series on Leadership in tough times.

Link to Part I: When it Gets Ugly: Leadership Matters – Lessons from the 1930s.

Link to Part II: When it Gets Ugly: Leadership Matters – Lessons from the 1980s.

Part III – Loyalty

In this Part III, we focus on the Moral Foundation of Loyalty, a Moral Foundation receptor that has more importance for conservatives than for liberals. Haidt writes that Loyalty:

“is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group…. Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty…. [Which includes] ‘It is more important to be a team player than to express oneself.’”

The problem is not loyalty as a balancing Moral Foundation; the problem is uncompromising loyalty: loyalty extremism – the demand of a leader for blind devotion above all else; and among a leader’s followers, blind tribal loyalty, the refusal to find leadership fault or recognize leadership wrong. The leader demand for loyalty and blind tribal loyalty are political issues that are most prominent in unsettled times, when authoritarian leadership is most prevalent and most easily accepted.

Times like now: When It Gets Ugly.

Loyalty – the Good and the Bad

It’s not uncommon for management teachings to stress the virtues of loyalty, both in business and government. After all, if loyal people become part of a management team, there will be less turnover, less debate about objectives and goals, and more willingness to devote considerable effort, time, devotion, and personal sacrifice.

However, there have been some important critics. In !956 William H. Whyte wrote The Organization Man, a study of the place loyalty and commitment played in company organizations. Whyte argued that America had been overtaken by a false belief that individuals should subordinate themselves to their organizations, with the result that companies were being led by risk-adverse executives who, as a result, faced few consequences for their actions, with their management teams victims of groupthink and bureaucracy.

Some thirty years later the Academy of Management revisited the Organization Man, in Commitment and the Organization Man, pointing out dangers of blind devotion, including the suspension by executives of critical judgment and an increased willingness to commit illegal or unethical behavior in support of their loyalty:

“‘[I]f operative goals take on qualities of normative requirements for organizational behavior, and if these norms conflict with those of the legal order, then corporate crime may be indigenous to organizational process’ … Similarly, at the time of the Watergate break-in ‘the climate within which the White House aides worked was one of total loyalty to the man at the top and willingness to do anything to serve him. Charles Colson, a senior White House staffer, announced that he would walk over his grand¬mother to reelect Richard Nixon.’… ‘The Watergate defendants felt that any activity which advanced the cause of the President was justified.'”

In 2014, Harvard Business Review published Loyalty to a Leader is Overrated, Even Dangerous. Its lead illustration? The Pied Piper. HBR’s critical observations:

“Despite a popular conception of governmental and corporate crime as stemming either from rampant greed throughout the ranks, or from the solitary crimes of a few misfits, in my experience unethical behavior in organizations almost always is caused by belief in and too much loyalty to a “great leader” who turns out to be morally compromised. … So let’s retire this entire model of the fearless leader and the loyal minions — it relies on a childlike view of leadership that does not benefit anyone.”

Abraham Lincoln’s Loyalty Frame

Lincoln Memorial (Shutterstock photo)

As we reflect on these comments in the context of today’s politics, consider Abraham Lincoln’s approach to forming and managing his cabinet. President Lincoln’s cabinet included all of his political rivals.“No President ever had a Cabinet of which the members were so independent, had so large individual followings, and were so inharmonious,” noted New York politician Chancey Depew. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana wrote:

“The relations between Mr. Lincoln and the members of his Cabinet were always friendly and sincere on his part. He treated every one of them with unvarying candor, respect, and kindness….”

Sometimes we confuse “commitment” with “loyalty.” Loyalty is being faithful to a person or an organization. A commitment is a promise made, a dedication to “an inner quality that results in consistent honorable follow through.” From Abraham Lincoln:

“Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality. It is the words that speak boldly of your intentions. And the actions which speak louder than the words. It is making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to change the face of things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.”

Political Loyalty 2020

Today’s Presidential Trumpet Calls demanding personal loyalty are well-known to most of us. For those wanting a refresher, consider the below articles, from the dozens I have accumulated:

I Need Loyalty: “All leaders want loyalty. All politicians. All presidents. But in the 241-year history of the United States of America, there’s never been a commander in chief who has thought about loyalty and attempted to use it and enforce it quite like Trump…. ‘And it’s not allegiance to the flag or allegiance to the country—it’s allegiance to Trump.'”

Trump Didn’t Appoint a Coronavirus Czar Because He Feared Disloyalty: “Trump refused to delegate that sort of authority to someone outside the government or to a single individual well-versed in public health. Why? Because more than anything, Trump demands blind loyalty from those around him, the reason he has recently purged the White House of many staffers he believed weren’t sufficiently devoted to him.”

White House abruptly transfers DHS official amid loyalty purge: “Heather Swift, who was DHS’ deputy assistant secretary of public affairs, was abruptly pushed out of her position on Friday after the Presidential Personnel Office raised questions about her loyalty to President Donald Trump, said one of the former DHS officials.”

Trump Ousts Pandemic Spending Watchdog Known for Independence: “The move came at a time when the president has been reasserting authority over the executive branch and signaling impatience with independent voices within the government that he considers disloyal. The official had been leading the office of the inspector general for the Pentagon.”

The problem with Trump’s defense of the White House loyalty purge: “The purge isn’t just about identifying opponents of Trump’s agenda; it’s also about rooting out those who may stand in the way of Trump’s corruption. … The result is a McCarthyite dynamic in which U.S. officials — whose principal responsibilities are supposed to be to the public and the rule of law — are evaluated based on their capacity for Trump sycophancy.”

Dangers of Loyalty in Governing: “[I]n the world of governing, loyalty can quickly get distorted into something dangerous. Taken to an extreme, loyalty reveals deeply troubling features about — and fosters deeply troubling characteristics in — those demanding it. It also damages those acceding to such demands….But we seem to talk too little about the enormous risks associated with our most powerful leaders’ prioritizing loyalty among staff.

“When a leader invokes loyalty — if you’re loyal, you’ll do this — it’s likely because that leader cannot rely on other sources of legitimacy. Indeed, if the statement were true, if the decision were legal, or if the order were moral, the leader could defend it as such. When unable to do so, leaders resort to claims of loyalty. In this way, loyalty can be like Samuel Johnson’s line about patriotism: the last refuge of a scoundrel. Second, when a subordinate accepts a boss’s demand for loyalty as sufficient rationale for a decision, that staffer is subordinating her own reason and conscience. … That not only allows the leader’s judgment to carry vastly more weight, it also allows the staffer to feel no sense of responsibility for the content of the choice. We have to recognize that loyalty will inevitably come into conflict with other principles — truth, justice, morality, etc. … [L]oyalty is vexing because fidelity to one thing requires infidelity to another.”

In the End

I am sure we each consider ourselves a patriotic American, and none of us want patriotism that is, as Samuel Johnson called it, the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Patriotism is not loyalty to a President, an administration, or even to a government that deviates from its fundamental principles.

Patriotism is our commitment to sacred principles about who we are and how we should govern ourselves. Washington and Jefferson were committed to these sacred principles. When their sacred principles clashed with their King, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor in support of their principles.

As Andy Smarick, Morgridge Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, author of Dangers of Loyalty in Governing cited above, points out:

We have to recognize that loyalty will inevitably come into conflict with other principles — truth, justice, morality, etc. … [L]oyalty is vexing because fidelity to one thing requires infidelity to another.”

We cannot allow those who run our government to become infidels to our sacred principles, allowing our government to become the refuge for scoundrels.

We must be committed – as Lincoln defines commitment – to the principles inked in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. We must not condone, nor can we afford, leadership that demands personal loyalty above all else.

We don’t need a 1776-type revolution today; but each of us must be committed, active citizens. We must be committed students of good government. We must vote and we must be committed voters.

Trump was elected by less than 30% of the eligible voters. That should never happen again.

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I admire the way you review the history of patriotism and loyalty, and end with this year, 2020. In the end, I applaud your conclusion that it is loyalty to an idea that commands the value we attach to the idea of loyalty, and not so much loyalty to a person, or even perhaps a political party? These days, and perhaps always, political parties filter ideas through a lens that is zero-sum. Does the speaker agree with me? If so, exclude both the speaker and her ideas from the conversation of “our” political party. That is what is happening throughout… Read more »