School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leaders and Loyalty to Themselves, Others, and the Organization

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 31, 2016 5 min read
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Loyalty is a valued, and tricky, characteristic. It is valued because being faithful and demonstrating allegiance are important attributes and contribute to the integrity of the leader and the strength of the organization. There are those who have a natural inclination to be loyal to individuals and others who have the inclination to be loyal to an institution. But why is it tricky? Each of us knows of a situation in which personal or organizational loyalty silenced the truth and sometimes honesty itself was compromised. So, loyalty cannot be the highest virtue. And it is certainly one that requires a “check up” on a regular basis. We do that in two ways: personal, inward investigation and listening to those who are the opposition or the critics.

Meriman-Webster defines loyal as:

  • unswerving in allegiance

  • faithful in allegiance to one’s lawful sovereign or government

  • faithful to a private person to whom fidelity is due

  • faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product 

Being ‘unswerving’ contributes to our integrity. If our behavior is consistent, those around us come to understand who we are and what we value, whether we are aware of it or not. That accumulated impression is important in its role in developing trust in us as individuals and as leaders of organizations.

However, when it comes to loyalty, we must first be cautious about its definition. Loyalty cannot be blind. Before being loyal to a person or an institution, one must be loyal to a guiding belief or conviction or an ideal. Rushworth Kidder is our “go to” reference for exploration of moral and ethical leadership. He posits four situations which can greatly challenge us as we make choices and take action.

However complex they may be, humanity’s dilemmas appear to fall into a quartet of broad patterns or paradigms:

    • Truth versus loyalty
    • Individual versus community
    • Short term versus long term
    • Justice versus mercy (p.89)

Myriads of issues arise daily in the work of educators that call for instantaneous responses. But operating from a place of integrity, with values at the center of decisions, Kidder’s quartet points us in the direction of “lenses that provide different ways of seeing deeply into our dilemmas” (p.90).

Kidder offers this example:

...what about the young police officer who watches his superiors plant drugs in a suspect’s pocket as they arrest him? A clear wrong has been done. But the risk of speaking out and shattering the code of loyalty may be so great as to plunge the young officer into a wrenching internal debate: Do I take this stand or let someone else do it? Do I take it forcefully or quietly? Do I do it now or later? (p. 132).

It Happens All The Time
A popular teacher uses offensive language with a student, parent, or colleague. Do we ignore it? A teacher comes late to school consistently and a new teacher covers for him. Everyone knows it. What do we do? A board is about to abolish a job as a way to get rid of a controversial but exceptional teacher. We are asked to speak out about it but it is a personnel issue and demands our silence. How does this impact us? Does silence now build a loyalty system that will benefit us and the organization over the long haul?

Loyalty choices present themselves often and each one can begin the slide away from our core. If we aren’t careful eventually we begin to wonder who we’d be and what we’d do if loyalty weren’t our first virtue. Are these incidents about following policy or law? How to we navigate the territory where we feel the pull of opposites in Kidder’s quartet? All four of Kidder’s scenarios are present in the internal conversations that leaders have as they make the right decisions.

Internal Conversations
These internal conversations are not simple ones. They keep us up at night or occupy our thoughts like hijackers on a ride home. They require a level of honesty with one’s self, a clarity that gives us solid ground upon which to stand, and the courage to stand there. In a positive sense loyalty helps. Sometimes, it assures us that to do the thing we must do, we won’t be alone. Loyalty to individuals may come more easily than loyalty to the institution. But what must come first is loyalty to principle. Once that becomes the beacon, it becomes less difficult to act with integrity when dealing with individuals and even the institution.

When operating from a personal loyalty, the rest of the organization can experience it as favoritism. It closes our ears to the contrary position and, for a moment or longer, quiets our inner dilemma. When operating from a loyalty to the organization or institution, the rest of the organization can experience it as favoritism. And in fact, it is. Fairness and integrity dissolve when the leader operates from these two loyalties. But when one makes principled decisions and when one finds the courage to act on that knowledge, it is more likely that everyone in the organization will benefit.

Sometimes We Need Others
Sometimes it is difficult to do this on our own and outsiders can act as mirrors for us. They can listen ot our rationale and logic and tell us whether they hear flaws. They can tell us what they hear about where loyalty lies. The Washington Post reporters who uncovered Watergate or those on the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe who discovered the cover-up by the church of abuse of children by priests were outsiders. The two institutions and their leaders had such conflicted or compromised loyalties they did not reject behaviors that were clearly wrong. That is why it is always good to keep dissenters and those of different opinions near. They awaken or “trouble” our consciences. Doing whatever it takes to keep one’s self honest and focused on the ideals we hold, ideals that protect and encourage, educate and develop should guide every educator and every leader.

The imperative is to define what is right and do it. - Barbara Jordan

Rushworth M.K. (2006) Moral Courage. New York: Harper Collins

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Illustration by Marek Uliasz courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.