I’ve been thinking about the many facets of loyalty. It all started several months ago when I had lunch with a friend. We have much different political views, but we appreciate and enjoy each other’s company and, for the most part, we avoid discussing politics. But one afternoon during the impeachment hearings, we had a leisurely lunch. The impeachment hearings were on the news 24/7 and it was difficult to ignore them completely. I made the error of saying, “I can’t believe that Trump fired Alexander Vindman, a lieutenant colonel and purple-hearted war hero who was serving on the National Security Council. He saw something he thought was wrong and reported it. His reward: He’s escorted out of the White House.” My friend’s response: “Oh Maria, he had to go. He was insubordinate and disloyal.”
That conversation haunts me. I have concluded that loyalty is an extremely complex concept. Is it loyal to stand by someone when you know he or she has done something wrong? Often too much loyalty can be deadly. Blind loyalty, where you are willing to do anything for a cause, can result in the atrocities of Nazism. Blind loyalty to get a person re-elected to office, can result in Watergate-type coverups which can harm a nation, mean jail time for offenders, and cause general disillusionment and alienation for the populous.
Think about the Boeing 737 MAX. Coverups of major engineering mistakes, prompted in part by loyalty, led to hundreds of people dying. Blind loyalty can cause drug companies to hide deadly side effects of drugs they manufacture. Blind loyalty can cause bank employees to create unauthorized accounts to maximize profits. I read the other day that Melania wanted Trump to select Pence as a running mate because she knew he would be loyal, not because he had the best experience or skills complementary to Trump’s. (He was destined to lose his next Indiana gubernatorial election in part because of his obsession with the social conservative agenda such as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” at the expense of state and economic issues.) So, did Americans get the best possible vice-presidential candidate? I think not.
I understand that if you are leading troops into battle, you must have faith that your troops will be loyal and follow orders. Otherwise, your mission could prove disastrous. But that’s different. Once a course is charted, an army must accept, adopt, and execute the plan.
Motivation may be the crux of the loyalty issue. We all have been in work environments where managers, executives, people in power fear hiring someone smarter than themselves. They feel threatened. It might make them look bad. It may mean that they no longer are “top dog.” For that reason, they hire “lap dogs” or resort to some sort of nepotism, hiring friends and relatives whom they assume will be loyal. In contrast, we have been in work environments, where the people in charge hire the best and brightest. They hunger for people with deep expertise to question, to challenge, to come up with better ideas. Their goal is to develop the best possible solution, product, etc., whatever the mission may be. Without that” what if we did…” conversation, that best solution may not surface. If all you care about is loyalty, you may not get the benefit of the “best and brightest.”
I understand there is another side to this coin. Disloyal employees who share trade secrets, who divulge information only for self-promotion or self-advantage or to harm someone else can cause tremendous damage to an organization. In my career, I have been astounded at the extensive repercussions such devious employees can cause.
Themes around the ramifications of misplaced loyalty abound in literature and philosophy. Practically every Shakespeare play deals with breaches of loyalty—Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth. In Hamlet, Polonius, both a trusted advisor and a villain, says the following to his son Laertes before he goes to France:
“This above all, to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man
Farewell, my blessed season this in thee!”
So, after much reflection, here’s where I come down on the issue of loyalty. When you run an entity—say a department, a company, a country– if you are truly loyal to that entity, you seek to hire the best and brightest to work in your organization. You make it clear that you run a tight ship—that integrity and honesty are important. You let employees know that you want them to question you, to bring up “what if’s,” to step up if they have a better solution in mind. You tell them that you want to know if anything illegal or unethical is going on because you will not permit that kind of activity in your organization. There will be consequences to unlawful actions. If they see something, they should say something. After a decision has been made, you expect them to support and stand behind that decision. And if they see illegal or unethical issues or misinformation being promulgated, they should address them through proper channels. You do not subscribe to the “let sleeping dogs lie” school of thought.
In my mind, true loyalty to yourself and country means striving for excellence—never settling for less. It means doing your job to the best of your ability and asking questions when you think the letter of the law has not been followed. Vindman did just that. I still say he is a bonafide hero. When Vindman testified at the impeachment hearings, he was asked why he chose to speak. His reply: “This is America. Here right matters.” Let’s hope that’s still the case.
Maria Grant served as Principal-in-Charge of the Federal Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting. Since her retirement, she has focused on writing, music, reading, travel, gardening, and nature.