Loyalty to a person or institution is generally presented as a good thing — a sign of good character. Disloyalty, by contrast, is considered one of the basest of character traits — the sign of a dastard, a poltroon. But I’d like to make the case that the loyalty that leaders demand (the most common loyalty situation) isn’t real loyalty, but stupidity or worse, toadyship disguised as loyalty. I’d further like to suggest that this attachment hurts the leaders as much as the followers in most situations — well, nearly as much. That is, a sane leader is better off where there is a viable alternative to his product, leadership, or service — a loyal opposition party, as it were.
But first, what is Loyalty? If I believe a teacher because he makes sense, or serve a boss because he pays me well, this is not loyalty, but common self-interest. Similarly, if I eat at a restaurant or buy a product regularly, it isn’t loyalty if the quality is particularly good and the prices particularly reasonable. Loyalty is when you eat at a place despite the quality being bad, or the prices high; or follow a leader who pays poorly and provides only danger and hardship. Or who’s crooked and damaging to your sense of self.
In general, there are only two reasons why any person would follow a leader like this. One is an attachment to the leader’s vision of the horrible future if you do not. Tales of grisly torture from a distant enemy are good to keep the underlings in their place. An even better reason is attachment to a brilliant future if you do suffer in the present. Tales of the glorious messianic future where you and those you love benefit from the current struggle and sacrifice. It doesn’t have to be a godly messiah; communism presents a messianic vision without a god, but it’s glorious, and the sun always shines. Generally speaking leaders who ask for loyalty ask from both perspectives: a horrible enemy at the gates, and a glorious future if you follow.
There may be a rational basis to fear a grisly enemy, or to suffer and follow in hopes of a glorious future, but if you find you are being asked to follow a single individual or a group that’s controlled by one individual, it’s worthwhile worrying that the leader may not be loyalty to you. Ask yourself: does the leader share real power and information? Does the leader make you feel worthless for the heck of it? If you have a leader like that, it might be worth considering: if the messianic vision ever does materialize (unlikely) the leader may forget to reward your part. History has quite a few examples of this.
Where real loyalty shows up as a sign of a fine personality, is in marriage where both parties share power, money, and information. Or in loyalty to a country where you (or your child) has a real, rational chance of being leader. If you really trust the significant other (a good marriage) or where there is reason to think one’s home and family will benefit from one’s personal sacrifice, one might rationally give up ones comfort and life following to protect one’s significant others. Even so, the real loyalty is not to the leader, but rather to an organization that one believes will protect one’s children and community. A leads who asks you to kill innocents (Al Qaeda, Stalin, HItler, Jonestown), or who amuses himself by your suffering, e.g. (Stalin) probably has lost the connection between your loyalty and the goal. (Cue the song– we don’t get fooled again).
An honest military leader will have a soldier council or protective group above him to keep him (and others) from over-reaching. There will also be a time limit on the loyalty commitment and an explicit understanding that service does not include suicide, genocide, immolation, or personal embarrassment for the amusement of others. There is an also understanding that the follower’s life and well-being will not be sacrificed in vain, and that no one will be expected to accept suicide rather than capture. On the other hand, a soldier who runs away from all danger and thus endangers his fellows or mission should expect punishment or courts-marshal.
Many groups don’t tolerate oversight of this type, and these groups should be viewed with suspicion. Church groups for example, are often led by those would like you to believe that suspicion of them is suspicion of God, it isn’t — it’s suspicion of a person. An honest leader gives the option of going to the police or the union representative, or the newspaper if necessary. Without redress, the worker/soldier/churchman may come to suffer needlessly or come to commit atrocities because of the power of the organization or the personal charisma of the leader. Any organization with a messianic vision of the future is dangerous; all the more so if there is no half-way point, no real sharing of power in the way to get there, and no real oversight for the grand-high pooh-bah (or whatever the grand leader’s title). Let the follower beware.
A Parable: The Donkey and the Brigands, by I don’t know who (I can’t find a source, but know this isn’t my own creation).
There once was a farmer who had a donkey — a talking donkey, as is the way with these parables. At one point, as they were traveling through the woods, they heard the approach of brigands (thieves). “Move quickly,” the farmer said to the donkey, otherwise we’ll be captured.” “Will the brigands treat me any worse than you do?” asked the donkey. “No,” said the farmer, about the same.” “Will they feed me any less than you do, or beat me any more?” “No,” said the farmer, about the same, I’d guess.” Will they load me any heavier, or make me go on longer journeys?” No, said the farmer, about the same, I’d guess.” “When I’m too old to work, will they keep me in my old age, or will they kill me, as you likely will for animal feed and for my bones and skin?” “Probably they’ll do as I would,” said the farmer. “In that case,” said the donkey, “I’ll go at my pace and what will be with the capture will be.” The moral: loyal service has to be a two-way street.
In part 2 of this essay, I’ll explain why even the leader doesn’t benefit from your complete loyalty.
Robert Buxbaum, October 20, 2014. I run my own business, and sometimes think about it, and life.