When Loyalties Collide

by Wiz

in Lessons,Podcasts

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)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Zapp February 28, 2008 at 10:50 pm

Hi Commander Wiz!

The title of your post reminds me of that old sci-fi movie, “When Worlds Collide.” That has nothing to do with your comments or mine, but I can’t help thinking about it.

First I commend you. The story you shared in the written part of your post is remarkable. What a TOUGH situation. Many teens would have made a different decision than you did. You acted with adult wisdom.

For the audio portion of your post: Thanks so much for sharing that too! I agree that it was a powerful example of leadership.

During about the last 5 years of my Navy career, I found myself advising Junior Officers (strictly speaking, the 3 lowest officer ranks), more than once about leaving the service. Because I had been through a career change myself (I worked in the private sector 6 years and then joined the Navy), I knew both sides of the fence. And I also knew what it was to change careers; factors to consider; and so on.

At the time, the Navy was losing Junior Officers faster than desired. So leadership was supposed to do all it could to convince them to stay. I didn’t exactly do that.

I talked with them; asked questions; gave them a few ideas on what to research further; and did whatever I could to make their decision easier. My tactics weren’t popular with many of those above me, but I believe it was the right thing to do for my people.

They (i.e., the Junior Officers) told me how much they appreciated being able to talk freely to someone more senior about their decision. That made me feel great and I’m very glad I handled the way I did.

Thanks again for your posts and opinions!


army boots October 15, 2010 at 2:16 am

Sounds like you made some tough decisions about your character while you were at the academy. Must be hard to choose between your friends and the regulations.


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