Friday, March 5, 2010

The Personal Strength of Loyalty - The Glue of Relationships

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell attempts to explain why some people are remarkably successful. His method is to focus on how they’re different from everyone else.  In one story, he describes Roseto, a town in Pennsylvania populated almost exclusively by immigrants from Roseto Valfortore, a small village in Italy. In the 1950s, doctors around Roseto noticed that almost no one under the age of 65 had heart disease. Also, there was almost no suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction or crime there. In fact, the major cause of death in Roseto was old age. After decades of studies, researchers found that none of the usual variables made any difference: not diet, not exercise, not genetics, and not the environment. 

To everyone’s surprise, the evidence showed that the major contributing factor was relationships. “You’d see three-generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other, the blouse mills where the women worked during the day, while the men worked in the slate quarries…It was magical.” They had transplanted their unique Italian village culture to create a close-knit community of caring relationships. That, far more than anything else, caused them to live long, healthy lives. 

One force that strengthens relationships is a dynamic we refer to as loyalty. But what is meant by that, exactly?

Our company has a great relationship with our banker, one that has endured more than ten years of high-flying and recession free-falling economies. A practical and personable businessman, he’s been loyal to us all that time. His most recent act of loyalty was to restructure our credit to our advantage, to help us thrive during the recession. He did this of his own initiative, even though it involved some risk to his bank. Naturally, we’ve been loyal to him, too.

So loyalty is earned, and it’s a two-way street. Being loyal means giving a relationship the higher priority. Simple enough—if you care about someone, then be there for them. Be true to them. Do what’s in their best interests. Based on your choice, a relationship will grow—or atrophy. The problem is, most people have many loyalties, including loyalty to oneself. And loyalties can sometimes conflict with each other. So it may be hard to choose one over the other. 

Our landlord, on the other hand, has consistently chosen not to give our company a high priority. The latest incident involved the dishwasher in our kitchen, which no longer works properly. Even though the dishwasher came with the property, he refuses to fix it. Based on his actions, we know that our relationship as a customer isn’t as important to him as the cost of repairing or replacing the appliance. As a result, we’ve started having creative discussions about becoming a virtual company when our lease is up.

Sometimes loyalty to a friend can conflict with loyalty to a principle.

Forty years ago, when I was an advisor in Vietnam, I was on a sweep through the countryside north of Cu Chi. On this occasion, I was riding on top of a mechanized infantry assault vehicle next to an old friend, who was the commander of the U.S. infantry company. On that day we had teamed for a joint mission—my Vietnamese counterpart’s infantry platoon and Butch’s mechanized infantry company. All the soldiers rode on top of the vehicles instead of inside in case one of them hit a booby trap. Together, we hunted for Viet Cong.

Actually, the Viet Cong were smart enough to hear our vehicles coming a mile away and hide until we passed. So Butch had arranged for a Cobra helicopter gunship to fly ahead of us looking for anything suspicious. Mid-morning, my friend got a call from the chopper that a “suspect” was running away in an open field. The pilot asked for permission to open fire. 

“How do you know he’s an enemy?” I asked Butch.

He smiled at me. “The friendlies don’t try to run away.”

“That’s not always true. You need more info.”

But instead, he gave the order for the pilot to engage him. Immediately, we heard a long, loud burst of the mini-gun fire. Butch then gave the order for his company to check the area ahead for more enemy.

We came through the trees to witness a scene that I’ll never forget. A dead body lay in the middle of an open field. The Cobra’s accuracy had been deadly. A young boy came running, screaming and crying. By the time I got off the track, the boy was crying over his father. When I removed the man’s ID card from his shirt pocket, it was covered with blood. But it confirmed that the man was a local farmer, not the enemy at all.

A terrible mistake had been made. An innocent man had been killed. It shouldn’t have happened. It was the result of an impulsive, callous decision. I felt certain that the boy’s sorrow would transform into hatred, and he would eventually join the Viet Cong. We hadn’t destroyed an enemy; we had created one.

This incident bothered me. I felt conflicted. Should I remain loyal to my friend? Or did the value for human life and humane treatment represent a higher loyalty? Later that week, I reported my friend to the authorities. It was a hard call, one that had repercussions. My friend was relieved of his command, a consequence that ruined his career. He and I never communicated again after that. Forty years later, I googled him and discovered that he’s now the CFO for a big company and a benefactor in his community.

For me, this experience had a hard lesson—that loyalty is an issue in every relationship and that loyalty decisions are sometimes hard to make. Also, it’s easy to make bad choices, especially if you aren’t conscious of how loyalty works or sensitive to this element in a particular relationship.

Also this: Doing the right thing usually means doing the hard thing.


Be there for those you care about, and you’ll never be alone.


Think about someone close to you, such as a best friend, a business partner, or a spouse. Then do this:

1.    Assess how much you care about this person.
2.    Then make a list of anyone or anything that might take precedence over this person if you were faced with a conflict of loyalties.
3.    The next time you’re forced to choose between something this person needs and something else, analyze which loyalty is more important before you make your decision.
4.    Make your choice, take action, and make note of the consequences. 

*     *     *
Nurture relationships, and the garden of your life will flourish.
“Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” - Oprah Winfrey

"Ah friend, let us be true to one another!" - Matthew Arnold

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Natalie said...

I really enjoyed your article. Thank you.