Why Leaders Often Lose Loyalty... Unnecessarily

It isn't due to lack of ability or business acumen - it's something simpler.

Posted Nov 29, 2015

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

In my experience leadership loyalty was seldom lost because of lack of ability, or business acumen, or technical skills. No, it was almost always something simpler, more preventable, and more unfortunate.

It was due to behavior, due to conscious personal decisions… that were completely preventable.

Wikimedia Commons
Maya Angelou at York College, February 2013
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thus, my choice of the Maya Angelou quote above.  Though Ms. Angelou wasn’t commenting on business or leadership specifically, she might as well have been.  Because it’s also a nice concise description of the interpersonal dynamics at play in the employee-manager relationship.  And gets at why employees often have the reactions they do to their own leadership.

It was a dynamic I observed more than a few times in my years in management, and at times it even proved the undoing of highly talented executives.  I believe the core issue can be summed up in one sentence.  But before we get to that sentence, let’s look at a couple of the common ways even extremely capable leaders can unwittingly undermine themselves.

Not sharing in the sacrifices they ask others to make – Little bothers the average employee on the floor more than seeing leadership not share in the tight times others are experiencing.  If budgets are cut by 20% throughout an organization, no one feels good if certain executive departments are cut by only 7%.   If most departments have lost administrative support during staff reductions, no one will be pleased to see copious administrative support remain only in certain areas.  Just as seeing leaders get down into the trenches when times are tough is a morale-booster, an aversion to rolled up sleeves is a morale-dampener.

Not playing by the same rules they expect others to – Anyone who’s been around the corporate world awhile has probably observed it: the subtle feeling in a hierarchical organization that, as George Orwell long ago described it in his classic novel Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  Sure, I wasn’t born yesterday, and perks go with power, I get it.  But when perks become excessive… whether it’s too many conferences in Costa Rica or too many extended-family members in luxury suites… what’s the simplest way to say it?  It makes people uneasy.

People notice, and these things make a difference. Which brings me to my one sure loyalty killer:

Setting an example others just don’t feel good about following.

When employees start to feel that, loss of loyalty invariably will be close behind.

As the redoubtable Ms. Angelou noted, the fabric of relationships always make a difference.  They matter in life.  And they matter in business.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor is author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).

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