Public Administration and the Limits of Loyalty

Politicians sometimes demand it, but it has nothing to do with ability. It doesn't serve them or the governments they run.
June 6, 2017
Former FBI Director James Comey
Former FBI Director James Comey (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

It has been widely reported since the inception of Donald Trump's campaign for the presidency that loyalty is the quality he values most in those who work for him. This was the case in his business career and is also the case in his new administration. Trump, for example, reportedly was irked when FBI Director James Comey, whom the president later fired, would not pledge his loyalty to him.

This obsession with loyalty surprised and puzzled me because it was altogether absent from my own experience in public administration. I was a local-government manager for 38 years, including 29 as a city manager. Employee performance, including hiring, firing, promoting and demoting, was a subject I attended to every day of those 38 years. Never once did I encounter an employee-performance issue that involved loyalty or a lack thereof. It never occurred to me to ask for loyalty, to evaluate in terms of loyalty or to even raise the subject.

Wondering if my experience was perhaps unusual, I consulted with Les White, a former city manager of San Jose, Calif., and an authority on employee performance. Les referred me to an article of his that appeared in the journal Public Management back in 2003 in which he identified 38 traits of successful managers. Loyalty is not one of those traits, nor does the word "loyalty" appear in the article.

The traits that do make the list bear on individual and group achievement at work. Among them are personal integrity, a sense of fairness, openness, trustworthiness, adaptability, effectiveness and the ability to learn. These and the other traits on that list come together into a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts because they combine the separate strengths of individuals into an institutional whole. In short, they are about obtaining institutional performance. Countless other articles on the subject identify similar traits with no reference to the trait of loyalty.

The idea of loyalty is personal as opposed to institutional. This explains why executives, managers and supervisors whose job is to obtain institutional performance rarely think about it. The few city managers I have known who placed a premium on loyalty went from city to city replacing able people unknown to them with less able people with whom they had worked before whose loyalty they could count on. Those city managers' careers didn't go well.

Notions of loyalty come up far more often when the subject is politics than when it is management. The reason is that the practice of politics is intensely personal. It is hard to know exactly where the dividing line is between being politically loyal and being loyal to a person, but it is a given that those who work on political staffs are duty-bound to promote the political standing and interests of the politicians they work for. And it is widely understood and accepted that staff members who want to take exception to that standing and those interests must go to work elsewhere. But even in this context, demands for personal, as opposed to political, loyalty have long proven problematic.

Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, for example, were known for valuing personal loyalty above all other traits. Doing so proved counterproductive for both. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, on the other hand, expressed little interest in personal loyalty; they emphasized competence instead. Our two greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, cared not an iota for personal loyalty. To their everlasting credit, they were about far more consequential things.

It is easy to see why politicians value personal loyalty. They are, after all, under constant personal as well as political attack. It feels right to them protect themselves with personally loyal staffs. But experience teaches that preference for loyalty over ability doesn't work out. The reason is that each time something goes wrong, the demand for staff loyalty increases. This increased demand pushes ability aside. Loyalty becomes the most salient criterion in the hiring process, performance evaluations, meetings and everyday operations. The path to success becomes one of displaying loyalty, not ability.

The trait of loyalty would be better left to the realm of family and friends, where it serves nicely. Loyalty serves well in this environment because where family and friends are concerned it doesn't matter so much whether loyalty is deserved. In the world beyond family and friends, however, we can never separate our view of loyalty from our view of the degree to which it is deserved. This renders the pursuit of loyalty a futile proposition for those seeking to improve the personal regard in which they are held.

The application of ability, on the other hand, renders loyalty unnecessary and irrelevant. There is rarely any need to consider the loyalties of capable and effective staffs. Politicians and public managers would be well served to forget about loyalty and pursue ability instead.