When Leadership Becomes Toxic, Part 5: Where is the Loyalty?

This post is part of a six-part series. 

Click here for part 1 “When Leadership Becomes Toxic: Ignoring Real Problems

Loyalty is to be earned

Toxic leadership does not generate true loyalty. It can only generate forced or manufactured loyalty.

Employees don’t stay? Didn’t quite elect the president you thought? Were the expected outcomes reasonable if they weren’t earned?

The reality

The kind of leadership discussed so far does not inspire trust. 

It creates fear and dishonesty and actions based on self-preservation. 

It does not generate real loyalty from employees or customers, or the general public. Most people are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and for that reason, they will quickly flip to anything that looks it might be slightly less painful. Political elections, anyone? 

They say millennials don’t demonstrate loyalty as though it’s a bad thing that they have standards. 

The misunderstanding is exemplified in this joke made by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld during an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He says, ‘Back in our day, our problem was “Everything is bad, how can we make it better?” Kids today, their problem is ‘Everything is great, why do feel bad?”‘. 

But it’s they have seen behind the curtain, and the emperor is stark naked AND abusive. And they don’t understand why they are supposed to be okay with it and give him their allegiance.

When things are bad and you are told to look at all the shiny things, it doesn’t feel good.

The real fake news

Things are not great. And loyalty is earned, but not by pretending everything is great.

You see, one of the falsehoods that toxic leadership promotes about loyalty is that if you show your leaders unflinching loyalty, i.e., the bastardized version where you never disagree with them or use your brain, you’ll be rewarded for it. 

And perhaps you will, depending on who you are. 

But if you think this leads to the best people “running things” and not just people who go along to get along and don’t question things, we need to look to our neighbours to the south for a rude awakening. 

It takes a hell of a lot more cojones and integrity to walk away from a toxic situation where perhaps you could have kissed ass, gotten ahead, and made more money. That is someone you can trust to lead you. And the Amazon VP, Tim Bray, gets it.

When people subsist in poor conditions, it’s not loyalty. It’s a lack of options or brainwashing parading as loyalty. It’s because they have no choice or feel like they don’t, or figure it will change with time. 

It’s the kind of loyalty Wells Fargo tried to fabricate by forcing its employees to hit impossible daily targets for new accounts. If it looks like loyalty on paper to the shareholders, it’s good enough. 

It’s the kind of loyalty that had its employees desperately setting up fake accounts so they could keep working there when they probably wished they didn’t work there. And it came from the kind of leadership that made people choose between survival in a job they hate and just general survival. Choosing between business outcomes and just trying to survive as a human being. 

What it looks like on the surface isn’t necessarily really what it is and that is why we need to play our part and ask questions. 

These aren’t people who chose to be loyal because it was earned with stellar leadership they felt proud to work under. And it does not result in creating stellar leaders either. 

It isn’t meaningful leadership when people follow because they have to.

It’s leadership in name only.

Like the essential workers throughout this pandemic who don’t want to hear about heroism but want their bank accounts to reflect their value and an accurate, emotionally intelligent assessment of their situation, people want more than lip service. 

We want more than the appearance of caring. 

We certainly don’t want to hear leaders say things they know are not true about what they did and did not know when they just chose not to do the difficult thing or failed in some aspect of their duty. 

We want to hear accountability and see tangible outcomes. 

Lip service does not demonstrate value. Lip service is the cheapest way to try to appease people. It costs nothing and does nothing, and when people are dissatisfied, it does not help. 

Leaders are supposed to be people who deliver. But to whom are they delivering?

This culture has to change. For the future we want and need, it must. 

Today has to be the beginning of the end of doing very little if anything at all to ensure the welfare and earn the loyalty of the people while denying that it could have gone differently.

 It’s just not good enough.

Like the stories that we have told in the past about happiness, love, sex and sexuality, and what these things should look like, the bastardized way we’ve continued to choose to talk about leadership is dangerous. A new narrative is required.   

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