According to Wikipedia, loyalty... "is a devotion and faithfulness to a nation, cause, philosophy, country, group, or person".
As leaders we expect loyalty from our people. We expect them to devote themselves to our cause, and to be faithful to us personally and to the team and to the organization to which we belong. How often, though, do we remember that our people likewise expect us to be loyal to them? They expect us to be on their side, looking out for their best interests, standing up for them and protecting them from the machinations of organizational politics.
"Our people are our most important asset."
How often do we hear this trotted out by organizations large and small? So often that it's become a cliche, a buzzword that senior figures in the corporate world like to drop into their communications without, apparently, giving much thought to the truth of it.
When you think about it, it becomes obvious that our people are indeed our most important asset. In fact, our people are our business! Without our people, we don't have a business.
Since our people are our most important asset we would do well to treat them with respect, to look out for their best interests, and to stand up for them and protect them. In short, as effective leaders we will need to show loyalty to our people. In return, we can expect them to show loyalty both to us and to the organization. In a perfect world, that's exactly the situation we'd find ourselves in.
In the real world, however, things are somewhat different.
No matter how well-meaning our CEO might be when she says that our people are our most important asset, when the chips are down - when the business isn't doing so well, when revenue and profit margins are down and the only way to save the business is to downsize - then we get to see where the organization's priorities actually lie.
In the real world, an organization - particularly a for-profit business - will do whatever it sees as being in its own best interests, regardless of the resulting benefit or harm to any of its employees. That's survival.
Employees, if they're smart, will show loyalty to their employer, but only up to a point. If they're smart, they will always have one eye on their own career and on opportunities that may be opening up to them. That doesn't mean they're going to quit and move to another company the moment a better-looking offer comes along, but they're certainly not going to hang about in an organization that doesn't respect them or treat them well. An organization that supports and encourages its employees to develop themselves both personally and professionally is more likely to retain its people because when the time comes for them to move onward and upward, they'll be willing and able to do it internally.
Loyalty, then, is necessary both for the employer and for the employee - for the leader and for the led. A business cannot achieve its greatest potential without the loyalty of its people. Likewise, employees will find it much more difficult to find satisfaction and fulfilment in their work, and to develop their own careers, without the loyalty of their employer. Viewed like this, such two-way loyalty is a win-win.
Having said all that, employees and employers both must approach loyalty with eyes wide open. Blind trust either way is not a good strategy.
Here are some questions for you to consider:
What are you doing to demonstrate your loyalty to the people you lead? Why should you expect them to show loyalty to you?
What are you doing to demonstrate your loyalty to your employer? How do you know that your loyalty is being reciprocated?