Loyalty and integrity are two character traits I think we all desire in ourselves and in others. I like loyal people. They are friends and co-workers I know I can depend on. It does not matter how bad the situation may be. I know I can count on the loyal people in my life.
I like people of integrity as well. I like knowing I never have to question their words, actions, or motives. What you see is what you get. Their integrity makes trusting them easy.
But should loyalty ever trump integrity? Is there a time when that is appropriate?
Intellectually, most of us would argue that integrity should always come first. Unfortunately that does not always happen. Here is a short list of when people put loyalty before integrity:
When Loyalty Has Trumped Integrity
Loyalty To Individuals
- Previously honorable Germans who’s allegiance to Hitler allowed him to slaughter millions.
- Charles Colson and other aides to Richard Nixon as they manipulated the 1972 election resulting in Watergate.
- Followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh as those men abused others and eventually led them to their deaths.
Loyalty To Institutions
- Politicians when they use half-truths or attack ads in order to win control of a legislature.
- Penn State’s Athletic Department when they hid the facts about an assistant coach abusing children.
- Boosters, coaches and players at Oklahoma State when they cheated to build a better football team.
The list above is short, and I am sure some people think I am being overly dramatic. But, let’s look at when we might be tempted to put loyalty before our integrity.
- When we see a friend cheating on a test in high school or college.
- When our best friend at work asks us to omit some details in a report that may make him look bad.
- When our child asks us not to tell our spouse about something they did.
- When the best boss we ever had asks us to delay turning in some expenses until the start of the new budget cycle so he can come in under budget.
- When our best friend asks us to be silent about his mistress.
- When our spouse wants to avoid reporting some income to the IRS.
What Would You Do?
It is easy in a blog post to say I would never succumb to any of these temptations. But, I have. Unfortunately, I am not alone. Many people have let loyalty take the lead over integrity.
The issue in these cases is courage. Do I have the courage at the moment to do what is right?
Integrity Stands Above Loyalty
In a world full of things I cannot control, my integrity is one of the few things I have 100% control over. I always have a choice.
The choices are not easy. But there is always a choice – Defend my integrity or sacrifice it.
The Cadet Honor Code at West Point states:
A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate those who do.
The clause on toleration is a direct reflection on how strong a pull loyalty is. At West Point, integrity was to stand above loyalty. If I chose loyalty above integrity, and did not turn in a friend who cheated on a test, I was just as guilty as he was.
Any cadet who chooses loyalty to a friend over integrity faced expulsion along with his cheating friend. In the beginning for many cadets, this lesson was the hardest implement.
The Bottom Line:
For most West Point graduates, that lesson in loyalty and toleration was a defining one in the honing of our character. It was a difficult pill to swallow then, and it still is to this day.
Unfortunately, some graduates have publicly allowed their loyalty to an individual or to an institution trump their integrity. These were men or women who succumbed to putting loyalty before integrity even though they had four years of character training to prepare them for that test.
The lesson in those cases is – we are all vulnerable to this trap.
Integrity stands above loyalty when it comes to essential character traits for all of us. We have to recognize the damage we do to our character whenever we allow loyalty to be our #1 priority. Then we must act on what we know is right!
The question we must all ask ourselves when we are tempted to put loyalty first is:
“How much do I value the most important and most controllable thing in my life?”
Read a related post: Mostly Honest Is Not Good Enough
Do you think there is ever a time loyalty should trump integrity?