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The Loyalty Trap

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Loyalty can be a leadership trap that leads to failure unless we are very deliberate about how we define and apply it, and then it can empower the team.

Today’s post is by Paul Sean Hill, author of Leadership from the Mission Control Room to the Boardroom (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

Loyalty is a leadership trap. Or it can be if we’re not very deliberate about how we define and apply it.

Loyalty is almost always listed as a top virtue, like honesty and trustworthiness, including in the workplace. It just makes sense to our inner good person, our conscience. After all, what leader doesn’t want to know that the team they lead is going to follow their lead in all things? What team doesn’t want to know their leader has their back or will defend them up the chain and from rival organizations? As I was promoted within NASA, it was common for managers to see their job as “Circling the wagons to defend my people and my area of responsibility.”

But something nagged at me from time to time when my boss beat the loyalty drum, and as an executive I was never comfortable asking for – or even expecting – personal loyalty. The reason why became vividly clear to me during a time of crisis, as we were reeling with the combination of the end of the Space Shuttle Program and the cancellation of the Constellation Program (the Moon and Mars program).

In response to the drastic change in NASA’s direction, my boss and I were discussing the work that we agreed was critical to pursue in human spaceflight with the great national asset that is NASA. When I asked if my boss had made these recommendations to his boss, the NASA Administrator (NASA’s “CEO”) he said, “No I couldn’t. I agree with everything you’ve said, but I couldn’t say this to [the Administrator]. He and I would both know that he doesn’t have a good answer – that he should be advocating these things – but he isn’t. So it would put him in a bad position and embarrass him. I can’t do that to him.”

I was stunned. I was stunned even further when my boss explained that the Administrator had made it clear that his sense of loyalty to the President meant that “even if the President gives us direction we believe is wrong, all we are going to do is: salute and do the best job we can on that wrong action; and try to make it appear to have been the right thing to do.”

Trapped.

We were trapped by a heartfelt sense of personal loyalty my boss felt towards his boss, an old friend and colleague, who was also our top executive and just as trapped by his own sense of personal loyalty to the President. Personal loyalty now prevented executives from offering their perspective up the chain and at least giving the CEO the chance of reconsidering simply “doing the best job we can” on something many of us believed strongly was the wrong thing to do.

Does personal loyalty have a place in a professional setting, whether in business or leading a government agency? Of course, but it’s not in the top 3, maybe not in the top 10.

Consider an extreme example like leading Mission Control during a spaceflight. Instead of a personal loyalty that looks like blind obedience, I was desperate to know the people who worked for me were going to speak up when they believed I was making a mistake. The last thing I wanted to do was lead my team into failing to protect the astronauts’ lives or blowing a $500-million mission! I’d happily take being remembered as a leader who had to be corrected from time to time by his people, but whose team always performed brilliantly.

Fortunately, at that level of the enterprise, it’s easier to remember the critical pecking order for loyalty:

1) The mission or core purpose trumps almost everything else (except at the expense of the next 2).

2) While focusing on the team’s common core purpose, don’t break or even bend our professed values and integrity of our core purpose – do everything the “right way” and be able to explain why we take any action.

3) And then never hesitate to speak up when you have a better answer or see us making a decision that is in conflict with our common core purpose or our values.

If you insist on loyalty, start with loyalty to that pecking order. Personal loyalty may eventually make its way onto the list in the workplace, but it’s certainly lower than these three.

This doesn’t apply only in spaceflight. Picture yourself on a bus as your bus driver is steering towards a cliff. You surely wouldn’t want the passengers to remain “loyal” to the driver’s dignity or pride and let him drive your bus off the cliff! Similarly, which executive really wants their team to sit quietly as the executive destroys a product line or bankrupts a company through poor decisions that the team could and should have spoken up about?

Instead of personal loyalty, when leading any business, keep every behavior and decision aligned with this pecking order and lead your team to do the same. That will certainly engender loyalty, but a continuously-earned loyalty based on an ongoing, demonstrated dedication to the team’s values and success. The team knows the boss won’t do the “wrong thing,” just as the boss won’t let the team’s decision-making go astray. Likewise, the team knows they can always speak up and not appear disloyal, because the regularly demonstrated value is about doing the right thing not just getting in line.

That’s the loyalty that enables regularly high-performing leaders and teams. These teams keep leaders from driving the bus off the cliff, bankrupting the enterprise, or otherwise failing instead of achieving.

Rather than blindly circling the wagons, defending your people, or silently saluting the wrong action, give your team this gift. Conduct business in a way that empowers them to be right and to speak up!

All it costs is a leader’s willingness to deliberately reframe the value away from personal loyalty and towards doing the right thing for the right reason.

Leadership from the Mission Control Room to the BoardroomPaul Sean Hill is the author of Leadership from the Mission Control Room to the Boardroom (CLICK HERE to get your copy), soon to be available outside the US and Canada as Mission Control Management. Paul is a former NASA Flight Director and retired Director of Mission Operations for human spaceflight, who now evangelizes high-performing leadership values in speeches and workshops. Please visit www.AtlasExec.com to learn more.

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2 Responses to “The Loyalty Trap”

  1. Shawn says:

    Thought provoking. When I think of loyalty, it’s not for leadership or management at all. It’s for loyalty to the companies vision and founding ideals. It’s also to a higher calling too, as in just good business sense. In that, if I come across a manager or leader that is doing things way different I respectfully question what is being asked and why. Were not supposed to be yes men. Yes men aren’t effective at creating a better more productive culture, better processes, and in turn better products and services. In fact it stifles it. That and leaders and managers don’t always have all the view that subordinates have and what can be impacted with a decision. Leaders listen and cultivate subordinates, managers are just looking for stars on their pmp at the expense of others. Don’t be a manager, be a leader.

  2. David says:

    And why is loyalty important to people, especially to followers who won’t challenge their leaders? I think, a la Ira Chaleff, we can turn to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the answer and to the field of evolutionary psychology. We don’t want to be ostracized from the group (Maslow’s “Belonging”.) When living on the Savannah Plain a couple of hundred thousand years ago speaking up to authority could get you kicked out of the group. You’d never survive on your own. So those who made it in that environment lived on and those that spoke up did not. Evolutionary psychologists believe it set us up to be obedient to authority– to remain a member of the group. It takes courage to overcome our wiring.

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