Menanteau Serfontein – 4 March 2022
I grew up with the notion that loyalty is a good and important value to have. I was also taught that one should have respect for authority and position. To some extent loyalty and respect for authority and position go hand in hand.
I still believe that being loyal and having respect for authority and position is important, however I have discovered over the years that loyalty must have boundaries, because taken too far, “blind” loyalty coupled with respect for authority could lead to disastrous negative consequences.
Definition: Being “loyal” means being unswerving in allegiance, such as:
(a) faithful to a person to whom faithfulness is due, e.g. a loyal spouse.
(b) faithful in allegiance to one’s lawful sovereign (king/queen) or government
(c) faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, religion, or product.
(d) a loyal person is reliable and dependable and can be trusted
(e) Even when someone that you are loyal to, behaves inappropriately, you will still be there for him/her without condoning the inappropriate behaviour.
(f) True loyalty means “acting in the best interest” of the person or entity.
In a marriage, loyalty and faithfulness towards your spouse is of special importance in view of the covenant that couples make when they get married and the fact that ideally, marriage is forever (until death do us part). Spouses should have more love, grace, acceptance and forgiveness for one another than in any other relationship.
Loyalty and faithfulness towards your parents, children and grandchildren also have a special place. This does not mean that one should always condone the values, behaviour and lifestyle of a relative who is wayward and on the wrong path. I believe that it is possible to remain loyal even if there are values, behaviour and lifestyle issues that you cannot go along with – in such a case, you can make your concerns known in a loving and respectful way.
“Blind” loyalty to an individual, a country or religion often leads to fanatical acts of violence, dishonesty, corruption and other forms of unethical behaviour.
Loyalty to family or friends could lead to nepotism and cronyism in government and business.
Loyalty to leaders or co-workers in an organisation often lead to cover-ups of financial dishonesty, theft, unethical dealings and other forms of corruption.
Many people become so loyal that when they become aware of unethical practices, they turn a blind eye and keep quiet about it.
Loyalty in isolation has a dark side, which causes people to make bad decisions, e.g. when people partake in unethical practices as a result of their “duty to loyalty” and respect for authority.
If your sense of loyalty is too extreme, you could end up remaining blindly loyal to an individual or entity, without seeing or admitting the mistakes, shortcomings, inappropriate/unethical values, decisions, actions, utterances, lifestyle, etc. In extreme cases, the loyal person could:
- Defend the person or entity that he is loyal to
- Deny what the person has done or said
- Pretend that “it wasn’t that bad”
- Put the blame on someone else
- Deny the authenticity of the inappropriate things that the person has said or done.
In this way, someone who is inherently honest with a high degree of integrity could end up defending the indefensible.
In a worst-case scenario, extreme loyalty to a person and/or a position, could result in people becoming complicit in unethical acts such as dishonesty and corruption, because they are “unable” to allow their sense of integrity to trump their sense of loyalty. An example of this is where a well-respected, persuasive and strong-willed boss convinces his loyal subordinate to willingly carry out unethical and dishonest acts. If the subordinate’s sense of integrity and honesty was stronger than his sense of loyalty and respect for authority, he would have resisted and refused to succumb to the boss’s pressure tactics, irrespective of the consequences.
One of the key characteristics of totalitarian leaders and regimes is a demand for unwavering loyalty to the leader and to the goals and values of the regime. Dissent and opposing views are not tolerated, even if the disagreement is legitimate, e.g. in the case of unethical policies, flagrant injustices, etc. A good example of this phenomenon was Adolph Hitler in Nazi Germany when a large percentage of the German population allowed themselves to blindly follow Hitler who demanded complete loyalty to him as a person, his cause, position and authority. His followers “worshipped” him and honoured him with “Heil Hitler!” which was an acclamation of the supremacy of Hitler.
However, authoritarian leadership styles exist in many settings today, where the same types of dynamics apply, e.g. in politics, government, business, educational institutions, etc. Although it is sometimes possible to disagree with the senior leaders in such cultures, it is extremely difficult to do so, resulting in followers rather telling the leader “what he wants to hear”. In these instances where loyalty is not voluntary, but demanded and expected, it is extremely difficult to go against the grain.
People with a strong inherent belief that loyalty is a good value, coupled with a strong belief (value) that authority should be respected, find it particularly difficult to disagree and oppose the unethical and inappropriate views, values, utterances, policies and behaviour of the organisation and its leaders.
Unless someone has a particularly strong sense of integrity (knowing what is “right” and “wrong”) coupled with courage, it becomes almost impossible to take a stand, especially when the person to be confronted is the boss or someone else in a senior executive position who has a powerful influence on your career and remuneration.
The above scenarios are not merely references to experience and observation. Empirical research has proved that loyalty can be a good thing, but at the same time, loyalty often plays a role in corruption. Corporate scandals, political machinations, and sports cheating highlight how loyalty’s pernicious nature manifests in collusion, conspiracy, cronyism, nepotism, and other forms of cheating. It has been found that blind loyalty to a group could cause members of the group to engage in evil unethical acts/behaviour.
In order to counter the risk of blind loyalty to the leader(s) of an organisation, the values of the organisation should be clearly spelt out to ensure that loyalty becomes a source for good, not evil. This means that the values should make it absolutely clear that under no circumstances should organisational goals be met “at any cost” – which means that meeting a goal must never involve any form of unethical behaviour. In addition, it should be stressed that any form of unethical behaviour must be reported, even when it involves the boss or any other person in a senior position.
If loyalty is promoted as a good value, then other values such as integrity and fairness should also be promoted simultaneously.
From personal experience and observation, I have concluded that loyalty and respect for authority and position has its place, but should not be a virtue in isolation – it cannot be separated from integrity, honesty and other sound values that distinguish clearly between what is “right” and what is “wrong”. Without these undergirding values, loyalty in isolation can lead to disastrous consequences.
Note: Some of the content of this essay such as the reference to research findings has been extracted from:
“Is Loyalty A Force For Good Or Evil?” by Michael Blanding https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2016/01/11/is-loyalty-a-force-for-good-or-evil-research-reveals-it-can-be-both/?sh=3d202b05415e
“Blind Loyalty?: How Group Loyalty Makes Us See Evil or Engage in It” By John Angus D. Hildreth, Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman – January 2016 https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=49694
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