Many of my early studies in military leadership centered around the concept of “loyalty”. 

Emotionally, I was unprepared for my first summer at the Naval Academy.  Overnight I went from being a high school “top dog” to becoming the “lowest of the low”, under continual assault from the upperclass.  It was a complete shock – my constant thought during those first weeks was “what am I doing here?”  (Note – many upperclassmen asked me that very same question!)

I took some comfort in the fact that I wasn’t singled out – all of my classmates were getting the same treatment.  Eventually we started to band together – it became “us vs. them.”  We looked out for each other, we backed each other up, we became loyal to each other.

And I figured out that that was the whole point: to take 1200 “top dogs” – each an individual star in his previous life – and forge them into a cohesive unit.  My thinking changed to “I BELONG here, dammit!  And I’m not leaving!”

Later in my leadership classes I heard about loyalty everywhere: loyalty to my people; loyalty to my classmates; loyalty to my chain-of-command; loyalty to my ship; loyalty to my country.  And occasionally, I was even reminded to be loyal to myself.  In the classroom, I was a loyalty expert.

One lesson I was soon to learn – through experience – was that loyalty was a two-way street.

In my sophomore year, two of my classmates approached me: they had broken a regulation and wanted me to cover for them – to lie.  At first I considered it (hey, I was 19, and these were my friends!), but eventually I said no – lying meant automatic expulsion, and I wasn’t about to risk that.

Several of my friends immediately turned on me, accusing me of not being loyal to my classmates.  A rift developed in the group and I felt responsible.  I was miserable.

However one of my early mentors pulled me aside and said, “Those guys have no right to cry about loyalty.  True classmates would NEVER have put you in that position.  They’re thinking only of themselves, and using ‘loyalty’ to manipulate you.”  It was a valuable lesson. 

(To update you on those two guys: one later left the Academy voluntarily; the other graduated, had a successful military career and today is a prominent businessman.  He also is one of my good friends!)

Many situations of conflicting loyalties are not so clear cut.  Take the case of a boss who is approached by one of her best employees, asking for advice.  The employee received an unsolicited job offer and wonders what he should do.  The boss, naturally, wants to keep her best people, but what if this new opportunity is better for the employee’s career? 

I just went though this kind of situation myself.  I was recently given a tremendous opportunity to do something that, without exaggeration, only comes once in a lifetime.  My problem: I had already committed myself to another organization.  I was torn between what I wanted to do (go with this new opportunity) and what I felt I should do (stay with my previous commitment). 

So I called the leader of my current organization – the one to whom I was previously committed – and told him of this other opportunity.  His response completely floored me – and was another valuable lesson.  So check out today’s podcast – and let me know what you think!  (4:55)

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When I was a teenager my oldest brother once brought his whole family home for a visit.  One evening we’re about to sit down to supper, and I went outside and called to my three-year-old nephew, “Come on in the house, Tom.”  This blond, red-cheeked “angel” stopped and, with a big smile on his face, retorted “You’re not the boss of me!”  (I can only imagine what my parents would have done had I said that to my uncle, but I digress.)  I said “Well, your dad wants you in the house for supper.”  That did the trick.

Later, during one of my military leadership classes in college, the professor cautioned us about saying things like “the boss wants…” or “the captain says…”  This is especially tempting when you know that what you’re about to say is going to be unpopular.  But when you use those phrases, you’re essentially saying to your people “Hey, this isn’t my idea!  I’m only doing this because the boss wants it that way.”

The problem with this, my professor said, is twofold.  First, you’re demonstrating that you’re more concerned about being popular than taking charge.  You’re training your people to respect the boss and not you.  You’ll have zero credibility with your organization – they’ll subconsciously start thinking “you’re not the boss of me!”

Secondly, you’re undercutting your boss.  You’re telling your organization that you disagree with him – in other words, the boss is wrong.  And your people start thinking, “If he’s not gonna back the boss in front of us, will he back us when he’s in front of the boss?”  Doubts about your integrity and loyalty will soon emerge.

My professor taught us – and my own experience has borne this out – that your people are a reflection of you as a leader.  How you treat them is how they treat you.  You want loyalty?  You demonstrate loyalty, both to them and up the chain of command.  You want respect for your authority?  Then you demonstrate respect for your boss’s authority.  This isn’t always easy – but as the cliché goes, “if it were easy, everyone would do it.”

Today’s podcast is a discussion of one of the earliest US naval leaders.  He was a successful businessman, an extremely competent mariner, and experienced leader.  He seemed to be the ideal choice for his job . . . but he had one problem.  Check out the story.  I’m looking forward to your comments on this one!  (5:56)

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Responsible Leadership and Bad News

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Keeping Your Powder Dry

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Leadership from My Old Roommate

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This Lady Has It Together!

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Walking in the Presence of Heroes

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Authority vs. Leadership

November 20, 2007

In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, author John Maxwell writes that “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”  I didn’t necessarily buy that at first.  Sure, there was an influence component in leadership, but I felt there was certainly more to it than that.  In my world as a military officer, […]

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What Do We Really Mean by “Veterans Day”?

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Here in the US, there are two days during the year where we specifically honor and remember those men and women who served in the Armed Forces.  Memorial Day is for paying tribute those who are no longer with us: those who lost their lives in active service, particularly those who died in battle or […]

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