A client called one day to tell me that his boss was acting inappropriately and he didn’t know what to do about it. He had a tape recording of his boss lying, but to his dismay his boss’ boss – the President of the organization – wouldn’t hear any of his complaints. Instead, he simply blamed all the problems on my client, and ultimately fired him. It reminded me of what happened when I went to the Yankees game this summer.
Yes, in honor of the last season at Yankee stadium a friend invited me to a game a couple of months ago and I had a wonderful time in amazing seats, ten rows behind home plate. Sitting next to us were two men who consumed an unending flow of beer and by the eighth inning were blubbering, obnoxious, disgusting drunks.
The older gentleman in front of them finally turned around and said, “Would you please stop spitting on me.” The drunk next to us replied, “What are you going to do about it?” Then began the most horrific exchange of insults I’ve ever heard (and that is saying something) ending in the guy in front appealing to the ushers. As the old man talked to the usher the drunk leaned over to us and said in slurred speech, “they won’t do anything to me; I’m a season ticket holder.” Sure enough, the game ended and the ushers didn’t do anything.
Back to my client. I related this story to him and told him that his problem is that his boss is a “season ticket holder” and he is not. The President is showing loyalty to a member of his team by not even listening to criticism of one of his guys, and in part that is a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. Sometimes you need to kick the season ticket holder out of the stadium in order to maintain your integrity and credibility as a leader.
One of the nuances of leadership is how you handle loyalty. If you are not loyal to your key people you will never get them to perform at their highest level, But if you are too loyal – if you can’t see their failings and you don’t treat others with respect also – then you undermine your leadership with the rest of your entire organization.
Last February I heard the columnist and author Peggy Noonan speak to the John Locke Foundation, in North Carolina. Ms. Noonan was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, and has written several best-selling books including “What I Saw At The Revolution” and “When Character Was King.” She is one of my favorite authors and I look forward to reading her column each Friday at www.opinionjournal.com.
As part of her speech that evening she made an interesting observation about the Hillary Clinton campaign. She said that early in Hillary’s campaign she looked for those who were most loyal and promoted them. When the campaign was in crisis she was surrounded by people who were very loyal to her, but not necessarily the best and brightest thinkers she could have had on her team.
Peggy Noonan didn’t stop there. She went on to say that the same problem has afflicted the Bush White House. This was no small statement for Ms. Noonan. She penned the line “a thousand points of light” for W’s father, and took two months off without pay to work for W in 2000.
She compared the current Bush White House to the Reagan White House. Reagan, she said, loved debate. He wanted the best and brightest to fight it out and come to him with solutions. He was secure in what he believed and wasn’t intimidated by having strong people around him. He liked people who were strong, opinionated and willing to defend a position without fear of reprisal. He liked difficult but top-notch people and was loyal to them.
Loyalty is a good thing. It is a good thing on a team and in followers, but it is not the only thing. The proverb says, “Better are the wounds of a friend than the kisses of an enemy.” The true friend, and the best team members, tell you the truth even when it seems disloyal. The best leaders are loyal to their team, but aren’t afraid to hear the truth about a team member and do something about it.
Ms. Noonan wasn’t being disloyal to President Bush when she wrote in January that she believed he was destroying the Republican Party. She was giving her opinion and she was “truth telling” to not only the President, but also to her compatriots in the party. Sometimes it isn’t fun to hear the truth. Sometimes it is painful to hear the truth and we avoid hearing it by surrounding ourselves with only those who will tell us what they think we want to hear. This is particularly true in politically dysfunctional organizations where everyone is afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing and having their career affected by it.
Leaders – especially leaders of leaders – must rise above this. Great leaders must surround themselves with great leaders; people who will tell them the truth even when it doesn’t feel good.
Building your team is one of the – if not the single most – important things a leader must do. You must establish a sense of loyalty among your team, but you cannot be so blinded by loyalty that you allow a single team member to undermine what is best for the organization as a whole. How you handle your “season ticket holders” is one of the key elements of great leadership and it is the road every leader must navigate.
Know who you are and be it.