When Loyalty is a Weakness


I believe in loyalty. It’s a character attribute that is part of the personal portfolio of my closest friends and my most respected colleagues.

I’ve treasured those rarefied few who have stuck with me through my many adventures. I try to return the favor by modeling the same behavior.

But in both business and in life loyalty alone is not enough.

We owe our bosses and besties our allegiance. But we also owe them a return on their investment.

In 1948 the novelist Paul Eldridge published an aphorism that is often attributed to Malcolm Forbes. “A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.”

That is honorable. As I love to say, kindness is the highest form of wisdom. We can be kind even when we must be firm. But this is also true:

To truly serve, loyalty must go hand in hand with results.

As Michael Corleone said to his brother when he decided to kill the Turk in the original Godfather, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s business.”

I’ve always avoided hiring friends for this reason. In the rare cases where someone close to me has let me down in the business arena, it has also damaged our personal relationship, even though I tried to make it crystal clear that progress toward shared objectives was the strong cable that connected our two brands in the workplace.

The loyalty thing always comes up in the conversation. That hasn’t really changed. If someone isn’t succeeding in a role, the loyal friend owes it to him to help him find an opportunity where he can be successful.

But finding that role is ultimately a solo journey. We can listen, provide feedback, even open doors, but it’s up to the individual to define purpose, determine what steps lead to success, and to take the habitual actions to move in that direction.

If a leader values loyalty too highly, it can lead to disaster. My bruised buddies who follow Michigan State Football know exactly what I’m talking about.

In the end, we only care about the value proposition. So long as we feel that a relationship is beneficial, we’ll work to nurture it. So long as the team is winning, we’ll show up. So long as a product meets expectations, we’ll continue to buy it.

The minute our own professional, financial or personal trajectory is threatened, all bets are off.

This is as it should be. A friend recently crystallized this for me when she said, “Find your tribe, move in the direction of your dreams and de-prioritize everyone and everything that holds you back.”

We attract fellow travelers when we have clearly articulated our objectives and are moving deliberately to achieve them. In almost every important personal relationship, there is something else we share in common. That common interest, whether it be parenthood, profession or passion is the foundation. Loyalty and perceived value are the glue.

Where loyalty becomes a short term insurance policy is in those inevitable seasons where we stumble. Setbacks are essential to forward progress. The best company cultures celebrate this. But if failure become a habit, all concerned benefit from making a change.

One of my early bosses gave me this leadership advice: “For the first thirty days, it’s an employee problem. After that, it’s a management problem.”

We blame dysfunctional cultures on bad leadership with good reason. The fish always stinks from the head back.

What we don’t often understand is that we are the general managers of our own personal brand.

Kindness and loyalty may help extend our winning streak. Delivering on the promise remains the bottom line.

Deciding who and what and where to focus you attention is one of our most crucial activities. It’s a daily challenge. How we attack it will determine the extent to which we can enjoy a fulfilling career, rewarding relationships and a meaningful life.

Loyalty buys a short respite when things start to go south. But if you cannot jettison the cogs that aren’t working you will ultimately destroy the machine and go down with the ship.