A Note to the Team At Work

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From: Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Dear Colleagues:

The issue of personal loyalty has so dominated the news of late that I thought I’d take a moment to offer a few thoughts on the subject. I’d like to think that I have been clear about this all along but the shock waves out of Washington these days have inspired me to leave nothing to chance.

Loyalty matters in our organization and nothing should suggest otherwise. Each of us has a personal responsibility to our customers and stakeholders, our donors, colleagues, and “users.” Loyalty lies at the core of the sacred contract we ‘sign’ when we come to work in the nonprofit sector. Funders invest in our cause in part because they trust us to be faithful emissaries and advocates. They believe in our fidelity to the highest ethical standards of stewardship and doing what is right.

As your CEO, I too expect loyalty. We cannot do the difficult work that needs to be done if we are each rowing in different directions. Personal agendas must, of necessity, give way to the needs of the organization writ large. Even decisions you don’t agree with (provided they are not illegal or immoral) require your support and spirited endorsement.

But, as a former American President (much in the news of late) was fond of saying, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.” Loyalty to me can never be about blind obeisance. When I ask for your loyalty, I am asking for your devoted support, and that can only happen when you provide me with your honest opinions and insights, even when they differ from my own. You work here precisely because senior leadership and I value your skillsets and your judgment. And because we work as a team, I seek that judgment on a daily basis, fully understanding that your wisdom and my instincts won’t always overlap. Keep in mind, however, that you cannot be loyal to me, if you only tell me what you think I want to hear.

Leaders make a grievous mistake when they bifurcate honesty and allegiance. Indeed, mendacity in the name of loyalty is treacherous. In this organization there is a difference between fidelity and sycophancy. No leader can afford to suffer the ill effects of what Patrick Lencioni calls “terminal correctness,” certainly not I. My job is to provide a safe space for robust debate with impunity, motivated only by a desire to make the best decisions for our stakeholders. Your job is to reciprocate, by providing me with the kind of truthful input and feedback that define genuine personal loyalty.

The Hebrew word ne’emanut – loyalty – shares the same root with words meaning truthfulness and faithfulness. Let there be no doubt that when we speak of loyalty around here we are not talking about obsequiousness. Loyalty is about honesty, and fealty to the cause and to our moral code, and we only get there when we are truthful with each other. To be sure, we won’t always agree, and there will be times when I make decisions you won’t like and vice versa. But when we are loyal to each other, to those we serve, and to our mission, unquestioned servility is not the answer. We must be willing to point out the weaknesses of each other’s argument, to ask hard questions, to push back, and to challenge. These are the true hallmarks of loyalty.

As always, please let me know if you have questions, comments, thoughts, or suggestions.

Loyally yours,

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Office of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include: Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. You can follow his blog, “Growing Leaders” at hallewis.com. He can be reached at president @spertus.edu.