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Leaders, Are You Betraying Your People?

Tom Wang/

If you are a leader in the federal government, and doing your job, at some point you will likely betray the people in your organization in pursuing the higher purpose required of a public servant (and being a leader in general). 

Your larger responsibility is to sustain the governmental organization, which serves the public interest. In a world driven by constant change, you must adapt and lead your organization in adapting. To adapt you may disrupt the status quo, and when you disrupt the status quo individuals in your organization may feel betrayed.  It sucks, and you’ll likely have to do it at some point— if (and that’s a big if) you accept the responsibilities that come with being a leader. 

The word betrayal sends chills up my spine and creates a general sense of “ick.”  I suspect it’s the same for many people.  As with many things in life, without context it’s nearly impossible to understand how leadership betrayal could possibly be considered appropriate in modern organizational life.  However, in researching theories around complex adaptive systems for a client leadership development program, I ran across a stirring article written by James Krantz and associated with the Tavistock Institute  in London.  To grossly summarize, Krantz suggests that leaders often commit virtuous betrayal in the course of exercising their leadership responsibilities during times of organizational change.

I don’t like this idea, at all.  I really don’t want to agree with this and I find the mere thought of this deeply troubling.  Unfortunately, after reading the article in full, I agree with many of the tenets.  Here are a few observations and excerpts:

  • Building on Latin precursors of the meaning of the word betrayal, Krantz’ viewpoint, is:  Betrayal arises from dutiful obligation and involves consignment or “handing over” to a higher purpose.
  • Betrayal in the service of a higher purpose is inherent in organizational life and deeply linked to the capacity to lead . . . it is a necessity for change and adaptation.
  • Leaders reveal (often unwanted) truth about directions that must be taken or relinquished. Betrayal, as transgression, enters with recognition that bringing a vision into reality necessarily destabilizes both the status quo and whatever emotional equilibrium has developed around it.
  • Leaders who betray, even of organizational necessity, bear the guilt of injuring others, especially when there has been a bond of loyalty . . . for leaders of organizations who must often depend on the betrayed going forward, losing emotional contact can be perilous.
  • Injury is more easily overcome, and the experience of guilt, anger and sadness more easily integrated, when the betrayal occurs in the broader context of institutional purpose.
  • Incorporating the destructive, aggressive aspects of management into one’s sense of self is a complex challenge, made more difficult by the stylized popular images of leadership that dominate the mass media. Perhaps the sunny, idealized images of leaders who transform through inspiration, passion and love function as a social defense against the darker more troubling realities of leadership. Betrayal requires mobilizing aggression and a certain ruthless privileging of the institutional over the personal, often at great cost to others.
  • The impact can be corrosive on leaders who sometimes develop callous defensiveness or become scarred by the recurring impact of hurting people with whom they work and on whom they depend. While such postures protect leaders from suffering the consequences of betraying colleagues and followers the underlying splitting and projection inevitably compromises their own effectiveness and that of their organizations.

As Krantz notes, it does seem much writing about leadership glamorizes and idealizes what it means to be a leader.  This thought piece is perhaps the most confronting and compelling I’ve come across in the recent past as it relates to the harsh realities of what it can mean to be an effective organizational leader.

The article is 20 pages and requires time and space to digest Krantz’ propositions.  Read it.  Then, I’d love to hear your reactions.

(Image via Tom Wang/

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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