Policy, Leadership, Fundraising

Unthinking loyalty is incredibly unhealthy

If leaders value loyalty over competence, they are asking to fail.

I’ve been thinking a lot of late about loyalty to leaders. Regular readers will know that I have a Basset Hound called Arthur who is the love of my life – but not necessarily the most loyal hound in history.

The truth is that Arthur is only loyal to food. He’d run off with anyone who offered him pie or cheese!

It’s a presupposition that you must be loyal to your leader regardless of what they do. But is that really right?

It seems to me that when you demand loyalty to you personally, you can be in danger of asking folk to put aside their best judgement – indeed, what might be good for them – purely for ‘loyalty’.

But we’ve seen that that sort of unthinking loyalty is incredibly unhealthy, both for the leader and for the person being loyal.

Further, folk are trapped into ignoring poor behaviour from the leader because of ‘loyalty’.

Unstinting loyalty to a person in power can mean that you get bad advice and bad intel. People are tempted to tell you what you want to hear, including fibs, for the sake of staying in your good books.

And, as you know, there’s already a bias towards doing this even if you are a good leader who listens. Left unchecked it can lead to disaster – look at Vladimir Putin.

We frequently witnessed Boris Johnson send his loyal ministers out to defend an often indefensible policy position or poor behaviour, only to suddenly change tack and leave said ministers looking foolish at best and complicit at worst.

One wonders which of those close to him had the courage to say to his face that his policies or behaviour were indefensible, never mind in public.

It’s also worth remembering that loyalty to a person works both ways. If you are prepared to dump or promote a colleague purely because you want unquestioning loyalty then, frankly, you don’t deserve loyalty back.

Of course there is a distinction between rampantly slagging off your boss with personal attacks and disagreeing with policy directions.

Which brings me to our new Prime Minister and her cabinet of cronies. It seems to me it’s a dangerous route to take to appoint to top jobs those people who are loyal to you.

Loyalty to a person does not necessarily equal competence to do a job. And if you value loyalty to you over competence, you are asking to fail.

Perhaps it is better to have someone bloody good at their job, but a bit of a pain, than someone who supports you regardless.

Powerful leadership involves persuading people of the strength of your cause and getting them to be loyal to that, so they are free to challenge you when you lose sight of it or let power go to your head, which can happen to any of us.

We should remember that as sector leaders, too.

The reality is that loyalties to people can shift in the blink of an eye, whereas loyalty to a cause tends to be more stable. Folk driven by loyalty to a person are, like Arthur, likely to be led astray by offers of pie and cheese!

This article was first published on the Third Sector website.