Market Basket protests reveal five lessons in leadership and loyalty

July 28, 2014

Pretend your CEO was fired today. What impact would it have? Would it send shockwaves beyond the walls of your organization? Would your co-workers revolt? Would your customers protest? Would lawmakers notice? Would you put your job on the line to demand the return of your multi-millionaire boss? Probably not. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening at a popular supermarket chain in the New England area.

A historic moment in U.S. labor history is happening now. Here’s what it means for the future of business.

They say if you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it. That’s why organizational leaders across America should pay close attention to what’s happening in Massachusetts.  

Market Basket is a family-owned grocery chain with more than 25,000 employees and 70 stores. Famous for its low prices, Market Basket reports annual revenues of around $4 billion.  Right now, thousands of its employees and customers have taken sides to join the family feud that caused the firing of their beloved boss, Arthur T. Demoulas (known as ATD by employees).

In fewer than 30 days after ATD’s dismissal, Market Basket employees rallied to show an unprecedented wave of support demanding his return. They set up a Facebook page “Save Market Basket” that garnered 64,000+ fans. They organized multiple protests (and lost their jobs for attending them). Their petitions collected 19,000+ signatures. And they’re not done yet.  

Why did the firing of Market Basket’s CEO strike such a nerve with employees and customers? The answer, of course, is his leadership. 

What made ATD worthy of such devout following? What are the leadership qualities that garner such fierce employee loyalty?  This past weekend, my wife and I were having dinner at a local restaurant, and we had the good fortune to be seated at the bar between a current Market Basket manager and a retired employee, both of whom shared stories of their experience with ATD.  From the Market Basket fallout, we can glean five leadership lessons.    

  • Lesson #1: Great leaders don’t command loyalty. They give it. Market Basket employees felt they worked with their CEO, not for him. When ATD spoke publicly for the first time since his firing, his plea was not for getting his job back. Instead, he made a public appeal to reinstate veteran employees fired for protesting his termination. It seems that ATD is loyal to the end.
  • Lesson #2: Great leaders don’t sit in the corner office. They stand up for people in every corner of the business. ATD attended funerals to comfort his grieving employees. He called his customers by name. He developed personal relationships with employees and their spouses; he even knew what schools their children attended. He was friendly. He cared for the elderly. He gave teenagers their first jobs. He knew that by taking care of people, the business would take care of itself. That’s why the recent shift in corporate strategy is registering as a shift in loyalty.
  • Lesson #3: Great leaders know it’s better to give than receive. Market Basket employees enjoy benefits uncommon in the world of retail. Thanks to ATD. He offered top pay, profit sharing, bonuses, and excellent benefits. He supported flexible schedules. He made promoting from within standard practice. ATD’s generosity is what kept many employees coming back to work—for decades. As soon as its board decided it cared more about lining their executive pockets, its employees started lining the streets in protest.
  • Lesson #4: Great leaders don’t focus solely on the bottom line because they know employee loyalty is priceless. Few other industries struggle with retaining talent like retail. High turnover is expected. Yet it’s not uncommon for Market Basket employees to stay for 20+ years. The unprecedented loyalty of these employees is a testament to the culture that ATD helped establish through his leadership and direction. With the other side of the Demoulas family now taking the reigns, employees sensed a dismantling of more than just leadership but the very company they know and love. Can an organization’s workplace culture be its greatest competitive advantage? Judging by the empty aisles and packed picket lines outside the Market Basket, it appears so.
  • Lesson #5: Great leaders know that loyalty is a two-way street. If we learn anything from the Market Basket brawl, it’s this: Today’s CEO and other organizational leaders need to recognize the important roles they play in cultivating a loyal workforce. The bottom line in modern business is all about finding and keeping top talent. Now, more than ever, employees are in control. That means they will only be as loyal to the company as they believe the company is loyal to them. When you burn the very employees that helped make you successful, they will respond in full force and ignite a social media firestorm. At the end of the day, the majority rules—no matter what the Board decides.

So as you reflect on the Market Basket case, you should ask: are you the kind of boss that your employees would fight for? 

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