The Color of Loyalty

The Color of Loyalty
Photo credit: Emyan on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Loyalty is a term that becomes difficult to define in the abstract. Loyalty needs a relationship and a structured set of values to exist. It takes a person in a relationship with something they believe to have value and a personal belief in the inherent correctness of the principles that define their moral structure.

In Sustained Leadership WBS I defined loyalty in this way:

WBS Dictionary: Loyalty is a faithfulness to commitments or obligations. It includes obligations to people with whom we share trust and being faithful to our values. Loyalty may also involve tough love when our values are being trounced (by others or ourselves) or people are being disparaged. Loyalty is a strong sense of fidelity—adherence to the facts, and especially the ugly ones. Loyalty can be measured by the actions of the sustained leader. Loyalty can be enhanced or hurt by both action and non-action. Failure to act when you should is as culpable as acting inappropriately. Loyalty is often measured by the perception of others in observing the degree to which a person will go to support a friend or deeply held value.

Loyalty is a Relationship

Loyalty definitions seem to refer consistently to a sense of faithfulness and a desire to adhere to something – a principle, a cause, a government, or a particular person.  It is an adherence to moral character or the principles that lie behind a cause.  Sustained leaders are always loyal to their vision, to their mission, to their principles, and to their team. They offer the benefit of the doubt to those who are on the team and stand in strong agreement with those who share their values and principles. It is shown through trusting the judgment of another and the willingness to defend their use of that judgment even if you might have made a different decision. In a sense, loyalty is a measure of how much you are willing to put up with from a person before you say, “I’ve had enough.”

How You Make Decisions

People generally pick those to whom they will pledge loyalty by first assessing how they make decisions, the principles to which they adhere, and how far into the ethical grey area they are willing to tread. Too often people view ethics as a mutually exclusive right and wrong comparison. Most ethical choices are much grayer than they are black or white, leaving a lot of room for discretion and ranges of reasonableness.

Choosing Sides

Sometimes loyalty requires us to choose sides. Loyalty sometimes transcends what might be considered morally “right” while showing a preference for strengthening the bond between people. It puts a higher value on the relationship – a higher principle than whatever the situational issue might be. Is it wrong to take an unethical action if the result is a higher objective? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Loyalty preserves the relationship in these troublesome situations.

Confidences and Secrets

Loyalty protects confidences and secrets. It does not engage in tattling or in blackmail over a questionable decision. It allows for genuine errors in judgement and lapses in morals – within limits. And therein lies the crux of the issue. How far are you willing to go in expressing loyalty to someone who is, in the final analysis, human – just like you? Consider the family pet dog. I am firmly convinced that God gave us dogs as the purest example of unconditional love.

There is much to be learned by humans from the loyalty that a dog can show. Express your anger to them, chastise them, yell and scream at them. And they curl up at your feet or nuzzle you in contrition. It is not a case of all being forgiven. To them, no forgiveness is required. You did nothing wrong in their eyes because they are fully and completely loyal despite all of your flaws and irrational emotions.


Loyalty reflects your priorities. When you have a choice of actions to take, the one you take indicates where your loyalties lie. At least in the moment of decision. Loyalty is shown in consistency in action. Sometimes it is a stick-to-it-tive-ness. Other times it is a matter of cutting losses, abandoning sunk costs, and choosing a new direction. Often we test our loyalties to ourselves. We make a decision before we try it on. We hope the consequences of such a decision will not have harsh blow back. And sometimes we win. Other times we learn. We learn our own limits to our ethics and our loyalty.

Loyalty Comes in Degrees

Loyalty is shown by a choice; a decision. Loyalty establishes your commitment. Consider the loyalty shown by selecting a product off the grocery shelf as compared to the loyalty of tattooing the brand logo on your body. Loyalty comes in degrees.

Showing Deference

Have you ever waited for someone to show up? How long do you wait? In many academic settings, the professor might be late and the amount of time you wait depends on their status as a tenured professor, the holder of a Ph.D., or their status as a teaching assistant. The longer wait is dictated by the honor given to the credential they hold. You might not feel loyalty to the person so much as to the position. Similarly, in the military you salute the uniform and the significance of the rank, not the individual. Your allegiance is to the flag, to the institution. It is loyalty nonetheless.

Loyalty is Prized

Samuel Goldwyn of early movie studio fame said, “I’ll take fifty percent efficiency to get one hundred percent loyalty.” Loyalty is a very prized character trait. Hubert Humphrey similarly said, “Anyone who thinks that the vice-president can take a position independent of the president of his administration simply has no knowledge of politics or government. You are his choice in a political marriage, and he expects your absolute loyalty.”

Never Abandon Loyalty

Loyalty does have its limits. You never simply abandon someone or something to which you have expressed your loyalty. That is not loyalty at all. You talk with them and seek to understand their reasoning, their perceptions, and how they reached a particular conclusion. You do not need to agree with them. In hindsight, they might not agree with themselves. And you both grow. You both learn a little more about each other and yourselves. And you decide if your loyalty can continue. You may have to redefine the relationship and set new limits. Or you might go your separate ways.

But you never simply abandon each other. You have “the talk.” If you are questioning your own loyalty to a principle or a cause, you have that same discussion with yourself. Perhaps you will call in a counselor to help you consider the situation in all of its dimensions – someone who can offer a different objective perspective. Someone who can help you hone your moral anchor and perspective on your ethical values. Its something called growth, and without a few lapses from time to time, growth is not possible. So give forgiveness freely. You will need it some day as well.


This material is derived from the book Sustained Leadership WBS and is found in section, Loyalty. Buy Sustained Leadership WBS here.

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Tom Reid is a lawyer, author, mentor, speaker, and all around good guy to know. He has lived all over the country due to his career as a government contracting lawyer and now lives wherever the notion strikes him. Find him on Twitter @_TomGReid

With an extensive career in government contracting, Tom has found many examples, both good and bad, of leadership. These posts are based on his latest book, Sustained Leadership WBS, published by Morgan James. Tom is available to speak to your team on the importance of developing sustained leaders.


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