22 March 2007

Loyalty - The Overrated Virtue

Earlier this week, Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald wrote an interesting article about loyalty, responding to Justice Department emails that used the phrase "loyal bushie." (Sadly, there is no Wikipedia entry for "loyal bushie" - yet...)

It reminded me of an "Ask Dr. Dan" column from the Sept 2005 issue of Rogue Project Leader. I'm reprinting it here for your reading pleasure:
Dear Dr. Dan,
My boss is always talking about the importance of loyalty, but my gut tells me there's something not quite right.
Bob in Denver

Dear Denver,
Trust your gut. In my opinion, loyalty is an overrated virtue. Go ahead and take a minute to let that statement sink in.

When I say loyalty is an overrated virtue, that's only because loyalty is worse than worthless when it is divorced from deeper virtues like integrity and discernment. Loyalty is all fine and good if it is freely given to the right person (for example, a spouse or a diety), but demands for unquestioning, unequivocal, mindless loyalty are inappropriate and can lead to serious ethical breakdowns. Actually, just about any demand for loyalty is rather problematic. That's because loyalty is only good if it is freely and deliberately given, in a manner that does not violate one’s integrity.

Here's the thing - loyalty says a lot more about the recipient than the giver, which is probably why bosses and people in authority like to talk about it so much. From the stand point of the person who exhibits loyalty, we've got to ask some rather pointed questions.

So let's take a Nazi as a "boundary condition" example. A Nazi soldier could certainly exhibit an admirable degree of physical strength, courage or ingenuity (and many did). That is, we can wistfully say "Wow, I wish I was as clever as him" or "He sure is tough." But the loyalty exhibited by Nazi soldiers was wholly despicable, because it was given to a murderous madman.

Yes, loyalty can be a very, very good thing… but only if you exercise considerable discernment about the person or entity to whom you give it. When loyalty and integrity conflict, as they sometimes do, integrity must prevail.

The late Col John Boyd used to advise junior officers "If your boss asks for loyalty, give him integrity. If he asks for integrity, give him loyalty." That's a darn good rule of thumb, because it indicates loyalty to truth, justice and the American way, rather than loyalty to some guy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really like it! It made me rethink the concept of loyalty!