Loyal Antagonism

I was listening to a podcast last week. The screenwriter of the Imitation Game was being interviewed about the creative process and the many challenges he had faced whilst preparing this project. He was talking about the importance of a “loyal antagonist” as integral to his success – a person who would be honest with him and challenge him to improve his work.

The most obvious example of this that I have encountered is union representation – many times the unions are seen to have antithetical aims to management and are viewed as an irritant. However in my experience many representatives are actually committed  to the purpose of the organisation, they just express it differently, often because that is the only way their voice might be heard.

As I read around the idea I was reminded of the phrase “Speaking truth to power” attributed to Bayard Rustin, the prominent civil rights activist in 1950s America though thought to have origins in Quaker philosophy of the late 1700s. That then also made me think of the role of a jester, able to speak and mock the monarch, to expose cant and hypocrisy amongst the court. All of these examples say much about the power often residing in elites and there being a limited number of people allowed to challenge orthodoxy.

I’m lucky to have a number of friends who I can count on for advice and encouragement. Like me, many of them work as coaches and I wondered if that is the best example of a loyal antagonist. A relationship where there is no hierarchy or position of assumed power.

My final thought is around leadership.


What might happen if we encouraged individuals and teams to speak out, positively assuming that they start from a position of loyalty ? What if managers learned to accept the challenge respectfully, demonstrating that loyalty goes both ways and allowing antagonism to be seen as beneficial to the organisation?

I still don’t have an answer and I’d be grateful for inputs / challenges to my thinking – in the best spirit of loyal antagonism……


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