The missing leadership principle
Note: this is still in development; I have been focused on capturing what I want to say, and haven’t edited it for concision yet.
Leaders care about people personally and individually. Leaders are clear about standards and expectations. They have unassailable personal integrity, acting with transparency about their contributions and giving credit scrupulously. They are grateful for hard work and express that gratitude freely. Leaders are compassionate and generous: they acknowledge and reward the accomplishments of the talented people they work with.
Inspiring leaders never demand loyalty; they earn it. Loyalty is not blind; loyalty is not uncompromising. This is not a suggestion that we should have a more tribal organization. Demanding loyalty is easy but fragile; inspiring loyalty is difficult and durable. Individual loyalty never competes with the other leadership principles. Our ultimate goal always remains to deliver the best possible results to our customers. Loyalty is not constrained to the small team we work with regularly; it is fundamentally drawn from our loyalty to our customers and our company.
Inspired loyalty runs both ways. Each of us is a leader, and is surrounded by leaders. If we expect loyalty and trust from those around us, we must be loyal to them in return.
Loyal leaders offer gratitude wholeheartedly and without reservations. If a “thank you” is followed with a “but,” the leader does not understand how to be grateful.
Loyalty is different than trust. Trust comes from establishing credibility; it stems from a track record of impactful delivery. Ultimately trust is about keeping our word; it comes from making promises and keeping them. Trust is necessary for loyalty, but loyalty represents our willingness and ability to work as a team, and to put the needs of the broader organization ahead of our personal ambitions. Loyalty represents our willingness to reward such devotion to the broader good.
Loyalty is diverse. Inspiring leader respect and reward different work styles. They understand that they aren’t managing themselves; they make sure they understand and respect the work styles of the people around you. They recognize that their habits may signal expectations, and take care that they match their behavior with their words and expectations.
Loyalty does not require friendship. Caring about someone as an individual does not mean engaging in all aspects of that individual’s life. Understanding someone’s “superpower” requires a deep and personal awareness of that person’s abilities; it may involve, but does not require, emotional commitment.
Loyalty is boundless. Loyalty is not constrained to the small team we work with regularly. It includes the teams we interact with, the company as a whole, and ultimately anyone who might be an Amazon customer – and everyone might be an Amazon customer. When anyone is mistreated by the company, in ways large or small, it undermines the trust and loyalty our customers have in us. When a senior manager is subjected to unrealistic work hours, or a worker in a fulfillment center who is not given enough time to take care of basic needs, or a customer is subjected to a degraded experience in pursuit of revenue, their loyalty to the company is impaired. Loyalty requires generosity, empathy, and compassion for those around us. It empowers us to do more than profit from the labor of our peers; it broadens Amazon’s mission to include bettering the state of the world at large, within the constraints of a for-profit corporation.
Signs of a loyal organization
There are some signals we can use to recognize leaders who follow this leadership principle.
Show Strength Under Pressure.
Leaders who inspire loyalty reduce pressure in group situations to facilitate honest conversation. They diffuse tension. They are unafraid of respectful conflict, but check in and verify that there are no hard feelings. They create an environment where everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. They understand that a supportive, trusting environment supports people having backbone and encourages them to speak up; it allows broader diversity of opinion to help us be right more. They establish a culture that provides air cover, and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard. They create psychological safety.
Humor can be a sign of loyal organization. But if the target of an insult doesn’t laugh, or if the laughter is forced, it’s bullying. Leaders who are perceptive, strong and caring notice when fun has crossed the line, and apologize for inadvertent hurt. Leaders who inspire loyalty set the tone to balance jokes and fun with respect and boundaries.
Encourage Diverse Organizational Tenure
The first year you learn. The second year you do. The third year you teach. Then you can move on.Kim Rachmeler (VP Amazon, 1998-2007)
Turnover is a natural and necessary aspect of growth. A loyal organization generally keeps people for at least three years, but recognizes that unusually long tenure breeds complacency and stagnation. A loyal leader avoids a team populated entirely by members with long tenure. Being “Right, A Lot” requires diverse perspectives; the injection of new ideas provided by new teammates is critical for discovering our blind spots.
Change is necessary; diversity is important; evolution matters. Roles and responsibilities can change over time, and environments evolve. The definition of “unusually long” varies based on individual circumstance, prior experience, and seniority. A loyal leader helps valued team members change when it’s healthy for them to do so.
Receiving praise from a respected leader who does not benefit from that praise, especially when it happens unexpectedly, is a powerful incentive. Receiving an unexpected and thoughtful thank you note is deeply gratifying. As such, teaching/mentoring/gratitude is most powerful when offered in a way that provides no immediate benefit to the leader giving it. Strong leaders recognize the talents and achievements of other leaders, including peers and people in other organizations.
Signs of a disloyal leader
There are signals we can use that indicate leaders who do not deserve loyalty.
Bullies make themselves feel strong by making others around them feel small.
Bullies minimize contributions and value. Insisting on high standards does not mean “lead with dissatisfaction.” It should be very clear when people have met a leader’s standards; a leader who is never satisfied with what is delivered doesn’t actually have standards.
Critical feedback is essential to any process, but criticism is unhealthy. Any negative feedback, especially in a group situation, should be focused on how to meet a leader’s standards, not how an individual has failed to meet them, and never on the specific failings of an individual. Individuals may not be able to meet the performance bar, but even that message should be framed in the context of what the standards are and what the individual must do to meet them.
A frequently rotating cast, even if mixed with a small entourage with overlong tenure, can be a warning sign. Change is healthy; some rotation is necessary to bring refreshing insight. However, if it is common for people to leave in less than a year or two, there are almost always leaders in the organization or management chain who are struggling to inspire loyalty.
In a loyal organization the behavior of members does not change depending when the leader is present. A loyal organization raises problems directly and challenges openly. Its members will personally put effort into shared goals without constant requests to do so.
A disloyal organization will suppress and sideline real problems, pivoting to discuss leaders non-constructively when they are not present, both peers and reports. A disloyal organization will pay lip service to addressing core issues but will not engage any real mechanisms to improve.
Inspired Loyalty does not breed homogeneous, thoughtless obeisance.
Loyal leaders bring clarity; cult leaders bring fear. Loyal leaders inspire independence; cult leaders create confusion. They spin information and share selectively. They move targets. A bully will break others down, then build them back up, grooming blind devotion. A cult leader can be charismatic, often cultivating an dynamic, captivating, but ultimately unpredictable environment. A cult leader redefines “wins” so their followers never fail – except when they disappoint the leader. Cult followers end up feeling hollow and depleted.
Cult culture creates grim compliance. Inspired loyalty breeds passion, joyfulness, and a sense of shared accomplishment.
Great leaders inspire loyalty.