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'J. Edgar' in Perspective: Is Loyalty Overrated?

Posted By David Brousell, November 21, 2011 at 9:37 AM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce

There is a scene in the new Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar in which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, tells his longtime aide and apparent lover Clyde Tolson that the most important thing to him, even beyond intelligence and competence, is loyalty.

For Hoover, unswerving loyalty was the only thing he could count on to establish both the legal authority and the operational strategy of the FBI in its formative years. And it became even more important as he worked to survive the political minefield of Washington and to ensure the continuation of his policies at the FBI through the administrations of eight presidents.

That essential loyalty came from a tight inner circle composed of Tolson, his devoted secretary Helen Gandy, and his mother. The circle never got much larger. Without them supporting Hoover they way they did, the FBI might never have become the institution it is today. But it also led Hoover down some undesirable and objectionable paths, such as spying on Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, and keeping secret files on many others.

The emphasis on loyalty in the film struck me as I thought about the broad subject of leadership today. Loyalty, of course, has always been at the center of human relations, underpinning friendship, marriage, business, government, you name it.  That's because the core of loyalty is trust. Without trust, things between people, from two to organizations of hundreds of thousands, just won't work.

But how should leaders, particularly those in business, think about loyalty? How much weight should the loyalty factor have in decision-making activities such as strategic business judgments, information evaluation, and personnel promotions? Should customer loyalty be more important than employee loyalty? And when does loyalty no longer count?

Surely a business leader isn't going to make a key decision based on information from a source he or she doesn't trust. Someone could get promoted more because of loyalty than, say, experience or competence in a certain field. After all, experience can be gained and competency can be acquired, but loyalty is more intangible, more fragile. Some decisions, including the objectionable ones that Hoover engaged in, could end up not being opposed or challenged by those loyal few who may actually know better but don't speak up or take action because of loyalty.

At its essence, loyalty depends upon sustained trust, and when trust is there, it can triumph. But when trust is broken, loyalty can be, too. To some extent, loyalty demands faith, and faith can require a leap of imagination or a suspension of disbelief. Loyalty, therefore, isn't always rational or right, but its power is undeniable.

That's why the scene I mentioned in J. Edgar has played out in every dimension of human interaction since time immemorial. And it will continue to do so.

Rational or not, for better or for worse, loyalty is the glue that holds people, organizations, and society at large together. For business leaders, government leaders, and individuals, the trick is in using it wisely. J. Edgar Hoover didn't always do that.

Written by David Brousell

Global Vice President, General Manager and Editorial Director of the Manufacturing Leadership Council

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Posted on
Kaye Porter
Nov 30, 2011 4:02 PM
Great post, lots to think about here. One thing that stood out to me, which I'd love to hear people's thoughts on, is where you say:
Some decisions, including the objectionable ones that Hoover engaged in, could end up not being opposed or challenged by those loyal few who may actually know better but don't speak up or take action because of loyalty.
Obviously, we don't live in an "ideal world." However, I'm thinking, that if someone is truly loyal, their loyalty includes speaking up when we're about to make a decision that's going to negatively impact our future, as we're aware of it.
At that point, as leaders, the trust needs to run both ways. We need to trust that our team is watching our back, to prevent our going of half-cocked. At the same time, if we're about to make a huge mistake, our teams need to know that we're loyal to them, and not going to punish them for speaking up or putting the breaks on (with good reason).
Thinking about the industries I'm working with, right now, loyalty and trust is huge. We're here to protect our customers from getting counterfeits, in their EOL/Legacy embedded boards and systems. We're also highly protective of our partners brands and reputations when we manufacture and repair.
Without trust, and loyalty to our commitments... nothing would work.
Posted on
David Brousell
Dec 1, 2011 5:15 AM
Great point, Kaye. Those around Hoover didn't always speak up or speak up forcefully enough even when they knew Hoover was doing something wrong. The judgment call when someone goes down this path seems to be how far to take things and what are the possibly implications. Tolson, for example, didn't agree with everything that Hoover did, but there was never a hint he was prepared to walk on principle.
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