Do Leaders Confuse Loyalty with Agreement?

I recently met a friend in town from the Midwest for coffee; we ended up talking about our experience on the board of a local company. Earlier in the year, I’d resigned from the board, but my friend continued to serve on it. Our discussion led to the company’s CEO, who my friend said confused loyalty with agreement.

That comment stayed with me and is the topic of this month’s column. Do leaders confuse loyalty with agreement? As you know, I believe in servant leadership, so I’ve been thinking about this question from the perspective of serving others.

Servant leaders focus on helping others. At the Servant Leadership Institute, we believe our role is to inspire and equip those we influence — to help others through the unfolding of life events. If we’re true servant leaders, does loyalty matter to us? Does my friend’s statement apply to servant leaders? Do servant leaders look at loyalty in a different way than other leaders?

For the first 25 years of my career, I lived in the power leader model. The companies I worked for focused on results, not how they were obtained. They had ethics policies and corporate compliance groups that provided the appropriate cover for the corporate culture, but we knew our performance would be judged on our quarterly results in sales and profits on which our annual bonuses would be paid. We were rewarded on results. We were never rewarded on how we obtained them.

Most of the leaders I worked for were good people, but their actions didn’t create a sense of loyalty within the company. If you disagreed with them, they’d look at you as someone they couldn’t trust. You certainly weren’t considered a loyal employee. When I think about the difference between agreement and loyalty, I think about my marriage. Do we agree with each other all the time? No. Are we loyal to each other? Yes.

When I look at the people I call friends, there’s one person I know would respond to a call for help anytime — 24/7 — and I’d do the same for him. That to me is loyalty. Do we agree with each other all the time? No. So why do some leaders believe loyalty can’t exist if you disagree with them?

In the case of the CEO referred to above, it was all about authority and the “C” word: Control. When I think of servant leadership, our motive is service others, not ourselves. To help an organization grow, the people within it must grow. We don’t need to agree with each other all the time for relationships to grow; it’s healthy to have disagreements as long as you do it with the right heart, treating others with dignity and respect. I may disagree with those around me, but I don’t equate disagreement with disloyalty.

In fact, I believe disagreement is needed to be loyal to someone.

As a CEO, I know I won’t have agreement from everyone all the time and that’s OK. When it’s time to make a decision, I’ll make it, ensure everyone on my team understands why and move on to implementing it. The important rule for servant leaders is the decision needs to be made for the good of the organization, not for the good of the leader.

When decisions are made with the right motive, loyalty will never be confused with agreement. Are there relationships in your life where you have confused loyalty with agreement? I encourage you to look at them from a servant leader’s perspective to see how your motives need to change.

Let me close with a story. About six years ago, our company, Datron, chose not to continue one of our production lines that inserted components into printed circuit boards. We decided to sell the line to a local company that focused solely on PCB assembly.

We sold the equipment and entered into an agreement for the company to accept most of our employees. There were about 10 employees who stayed with us until the line was completely transferred to the new owner, at which time we had to let them go. I sat with the affected people in our conference room, explained their jobs were ending and wished them well. I left the room and stepped into the closest vacant office to gather my emotions when to my surprise four of the employees walked in. They each gave me a hug and told me it was OK. I’d just told them they were losing their jobs and they were telling me it would be all right!

They knew we cared about them — our servant-led culture showed we did — and they were grateful for positively affecting their lives. I still get emotional about this story. True loyalty comes with a caring heart even when you disagree with someone.

As servant leaders, we should focus on service above anything else. Once we do, loyalty will take care of itself.

Art Barter is CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute (SLI), an organization that helps people and organizations put servant leadership into practice, through hands-on training, coaching, events, publications and other programs.

He is also CEO and cultural architect of Datron World Communications Inc., an organization he transformed from a $10 million company to a $200 million company in just six years by putting into practice the behaviors of servant leadership. His latest book is The Servant Leadership Journal: An 18 Week Journey To Transform You and Your Organization.


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