Know where your loyalty lays

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. William Bryant
  • 51st Fighter Wing Director of Staff
Unfortunately, some magazines often include articles detailing abuse of authority and position by leaders in the Air Force. The obvious question often is, "Why didn't somebody say something earlier?" If you asked the individuals who knew what was going on why they didn't say anything, the answer would likely be that reporting the incidents would have been "disloyal." This view, while very common, is also very wrong.

Loyalty can be defined as "faithful adherence to a sovereign, government, leader, cause, etc." The key to many people's misunderstanding of loyalty is the many levels listed in the above definition. For professional Airmen, our loyalty is to the nation first, to the Air Force second, to the unit we are assigned to third, and finally to individual leaders or ourselves. Higher levels of loyalty take precedence over the lower when there is a conflict.

Our loyalty to the nation is contained in the oath we take when we enter service. We swear to, "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." This is our highest professional loyalty and should take precedence over all others. For example, if a staffer at the Pentagon knew that the Air Force was violating the law in an acquisition program, his loyalty to the nation would take precedence over his loyalty to the Air Force and he should report what he knows to an appropriate agency such as the Inspector General. Many of the worst acquisition scandals could have been avoided if this concept of nested loyalty was better understood, and in the long run, the Air Force would be a stronger force than it is today.

Our loyalty to the Air Force should likewise take precedence over unit loyalty. An example of this might be if an individual in a unit knew that inspection records were being falsified. To report this information makes the unit look bad, but is required for Air Force leaders to understand the real state of the force so we can accomplish our mission.

The next level of loyalty is to the unit. While some people will disagree, I believe that this is the last level of loyalty that is mandatory. We owe loyalty to the unit or organization but not necessarily to the individual who is currently running that unit. However, we do owe appropriate respect to individuals based on rank or position. If a commander or supervisor is doing something to hurt the organization, your loyalty to the organization should cause you to report it despite the fact that doing so might be viewed as disloyal to the person.

Personal loyalty is the final level of loyalty, and here is where the most common issues lie. Many leaders believe this loyalty is their right based on rank and position. I disagree. Personal loyalty is earned through action and loyalty to the subordinate. It's not a right that comes with the position. Personal loyalty is a powerful force for good within an organization, and it can be found woven into all of the highest performing organizations. True personal loyalty is not "quid pro quo" and is not based on what the other person can do for you. It is based on honest involvement and caring by both leaders and subordinates in each other's lives and careers. To build personal loyalty a leader should start by exhibiting loyalty.

Confusion about loyalty in the Air Force is often generated by a lack of understanding that loyalty at the higher levels trumps loyalty at the lower levels. There are also many leaders who believe that they are owed personal loyalty by their subordinates even when there is wrongdoing. While personal loyalty is a powerful force for good in a high performing organization, it must be earned through reciprocal loyalty to subordinates.