Blind Loyalty Is Not Loyalty At All

A new report coming out of the White House describes the “reassignment” of a respected member of the administration’s security team for disagreeing with the president. A spokesperson explained the move by saying that people who disagree with the president should not work in his White House.

Supporters of the administration wasted no time defending the decision by arguing the need for loyalty. They say, as many leaders would, that the work to be done is difficult enough without having it undercut by members of the team. A leader needs assurance that senior advisors are aligned with the mission, and if they are not, they cannot be expected to carry out the work at hand.

Others who hold leadership positions, however, have a different take. Theirs is a perspective that encourages disagreement and rejects the need for “yes men” and unwavering loyalists. To these leaders, disagreement is a means toward self-improvement. Among the most famous articulations of this approach is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals. In this work, subtitled The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, DKG extols the leadership of the sixteenth president by highlighting his willingness to place his three most vociferous critics in his Cabinet. The author describes how President Lincoln enhanced his efficacy as a leader, surrounding himself with people who disagreed with him. His need for personal loyalty was trumped by his own loyalty to the Union and the people. For Lincoln, any suggestion that individuals who disagreed with him could not work in his White House was antithetical to his view of great leadership.

Two classical Jewish teachings come to mind in this regard. “One who studies Torah from only one teacher,” says the Talmud, “will never achieve great success.” This is a remarkable insight. Complex ideas are nuanced. Despite the need for clarity, leaders must not rush to reduce difficult issues to their simplest common denominator. We pay a heavy price when we fail to acquire an informed understanding of intricate matters. Only when we surround ourselves with multiple “teachers,” whose perspectives differ from our own, can we make the best decisions. Curiosity is among a leader’s greatest assets.

In another talmudic teaching, the rabbis relate the experience of two sages, Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, well-known study partners and impassioned interlocutors. When Resh Lakish died, “Rabbi Yochanan lamented: ‘With Resh Lakish, whenever I would say something, he would pose twenty-four challenges to me, and I would give him twenty-four solutions and as a result the subject became clear.’”

Rabbi Yochanan understood that disagreements often make us better; they allow us to sharpen our positions. Rather than view disagreements as a sign of attack or disloyalty, effective leaders understand the benefits that come from robust argumentation.

Of course, willful sabotage and assaults masquerading as critique should not be tolerated. But in fine-tuned enterprises these are few and far between. Leaders who welcome push back and create a safe environment for opposing points of view increase their knowledge and enhance their effectiveness.

The former GE Chairman, Jack Welch, hardly a self-effacing shrinking violet, noted in his book, Winning, that “The best leaders have a knack for surrounding themselves with people smarter than themselves.” When a leader is sufficiently secure and confident in her judgment, she can be open to learning from the wisdom and insights of those with dissenting perspectives, recognizing that blind loyalty is not loyalty at all.

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Read my fomer blog The Leading Edge Previously published on JUF.org

Hal Lewis