Loyalty

One of my black belt students recently opened her own Taekwondo club. I helped her negotiate the lease with a woman who tended to make a promise over the phone in the morning and then to deny having said any such thing by the afternoon. This made it especially important to write a lease that clearly spelled out all the terms of the agreement. The woman, whom I’ll call Jasmine, had sent me a bare-bones one-page lease that was poorly written. I re-wrote it and emailed my five-page draft to her. She exploded, sending me an email in all capital letters: “THIS IS MY CONTRACT, NOT YOURS!!!” She then left an angry message on my student’s voicemail, with unprintable epithets directed at me.

My student phoned me, seething. She wanted to call Jasmine and chew her out for the things she had said about me. I cautioned her. “Keep your eye on your target,” I advised. “Don’t let ego interfere. Your goal is to have this facility for your martial arts program. I don’t care what Jasmine thinks of me.” My student agreed to set her rage aside.

But when my student met with Jasmine later that day, Jasmine resumed her tirade. She seemed to want my student to agree with her about what a jerk I was. This demand for disloyalty was too much for my student to stomach. She interrupted Jasmine and rose forcefully to my defense. “Mr. Schreiber is my instructor and my mentor,” she said. “I respect his judgment and his experience.” She pointed out that my draft accurately reflected the conditions Jamie had agreed upon and concluded, “This is not your contract; it’sour contract. If you don’t like that, find another tenant.” Jasmine signed the lease.

When I advised my student not to let ego interfere with her goal, I intended to help her learn humility. But by refusing to silently absorb Jasmine’s attacks on me, my student taught me about loyalty.

Loyalty to Others
The word “loyalty” evokes archaic images: feudal serfs bowing meekly to their lords, knights giving their lives for their king. But loyalty remains relevant today, and not just in hierarchical relationships.

Not long ago, one of my 4-year-old students brought a friend to class. The student’s mother explained that the friend (I’ll call him Seth) was enrolled at a martial arts school in the neighboring town but was considering switching to my dojahng. I introduced myself to Seth and asked him to watch my class rather than participating in it. I also told him I’d like to meet his mother when she came to pick him up.

When my class ended, Seth’s mother approached me. She told me that she preferred my dojahng to the one where Seth currently trained because my location was more convenient to her, and Seth had friends in my class. I asked her a few questions: How long had Seth been training at the other school? About a year, she replied. Does he like it there? He loves it. Does he have a good relationship with the instructor? The instructor is great. Does the instructor know he’s here? Um, no.

I told Seth’s mother that I would not allow him to enroll with me. The relationship between student and instructor is important, I said. There are few relationships like it in modern life. Particularly for children, the opportunities to form lasting bonds with adults are rare. In elementary school, children have a different teacher every year. By middle school or high school, they may have as many as six different teachers each year. A martial artist, on the other hand, builds a relationship with his or her instructor that can last decades.

I was nine years old when I began my martial arts training. My instructor was, and remains, a sympathetic listener and a reliable confidant. He had once trained to become a Jesuit priest, and he later worked as a drug and alcohol counselor. As I advanced through the ranks and became an assistant instructor at his school, he became an increasingly influential mentor to me. When I was fourteen years old, he began to pay me to teach for him, which boosted my confidence immeasurably.

A few years later, as I prepared to graduate from high school and leave home, my parents’ twenty-two year marriage ended. In our small town, their divorce was public knowledge. But for a few months, I confided in no one. When I arrived to teach class one afternoon, though, my instructor could see that I was feeling down. He expressed his concern, and I told him about the divorce. Without hesitation, he asked a trainee instructor to teach the class, took me into his office, and spent the next hour listening and comforting me.

I have been his student for over twenty-five years now. Because we both attend several of the same martial arts events each year, I see him more often than I see my parents. He is on the board of directors of my nonprofit organization. Few relationships in my life have endured as long as this one.

For these reasons, I asked Seth’s mother to consider his loyalty to his instructor. If he and his instructor were to decide, together, that he would benefit from switching to my dojahng, then I would support that decision. Otherwise, Seth should remain enrolled at his current school.

I wondered how the mother of my 4-year-old student, who had brought Seth to class, would feel about my decision. After all, she had intended to do me a favor by bringing me new business. The next day, she sent me this email: “I hope I didn't put you in a difficult position yesterday by bringing a friend along. I do understand the loyalty issue at hand. I love that!”

I think her enthusiasm came from the very fact that loyalty feels like such an old-fashioned concept. In a society dominated by the consumer mentality, relationships often are as disposable as razor blades. Seth’s mom was concerned primarily with convenience. And if she had severed Seth’s connection with an instructor he liked just because she noticed another school closer to home, then she would have taught him to measure others solely by their usefulness to him.

In 1993, newly-elected president Bill Clinton faced a political crisis that tested his loyalty. He had just appointed Lani Guinier to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. She had long advocated new approaches to preserving voting rights, and the press tagged some of her proposals as controversial. Clinton had attended law school with Guinier. He was a guest at her wedding. But as soon as the criticism arose, he moved quickly to distance himself from her. He withdrew her nomination and disavowed her views. They have not spoken since then. And all of these years later, if people remember the incident at all, what they recall are not Guinier’s supposedly controversial views but rather Clinton’s characteristic lack of loyalty.

More recently, presidential candidate Barack Obama responded differently to a similar political problem. He had for many years belonged to a Chicago church whose pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, often spoke intemperately and even indefensibly. For example, Wright had said that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack represented “America’s chickens…coming home to roost.” Well-regarded political analysts thought the smart move by Obama would be to condemn Wright and distance himself from him immediately. But Obama took a more nuanced approach. He gave a measured and thoughtful speech, categorically rejecting Wright’s offensive statements but also recognizing his service as a U.S. Marine and his work on behalf of the homeless and people with HIV/AIDS. In a passage that should resonate with anyone who remains loyal to an imperfect friend or mentor, Obama refused to jettison Wright:

I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

We admire loyalty in others because of what it says about their character. When I was a public defender, I spent many hours sitting in court with prosecutors, or going to their offices to negotiate. It always amazed me how eager they seemed to be to bad-mouth their colleagues. “So-and-so is lazy,” a prosecutor would confide. “He never gets subpoenas to his witnesses in time.” I remember meeting with a supervising prosecutor to discuss a case. His phone rang, interrupting our meeting. The caller was a long-time deputy district attorney, now nearing retirement. He was calling from court, seeking the supervisor’s permission to make an offer on a case. When the supervisor got off the phone, he turned to me and expressed his annoyance at the call. “Jesus, Tom,” he said of the caller, “you’ve been doing this for 30 years. Make your own damn decision.”

This criticism seemed unfair, because I knew that the District Attorney’s office had a policy of requiring deputy prosecutors to obtain the supervisor’s approval for offers. So it was obvious that the supervisor hadn’t really expected Tom to make his own decision. Rather, he attacked Tom as a way to build solidarity with me. But far from impressing me, his lack of loyalty made me wonder how much I could trust him in our negotiations.

When I teach children about loyalty, we talk about the temptation to impress other kids at the expense of our friends. I ask them what they would do if the “cool” kids were teasing their friend. Would they join in? Or would they stand up for their friend? The correct answer is obvious, and they always say they would stand up for their friend. But the problem arises in many contexts, and we do not always notice ourselves making the wrong decision.

For example, a few years ago, one of my friends got engaged to his long-time girlfriend. In the months leading up to the wedding, whenever he was out drinking with me and other friends, he spoke disparagingly of marriage. He joked about the “ball-and-chain” and his impending loss of freedom. He laughed appreciatively when others chided him for settling down. But it was all a charade. He loved his fiancée, and was excited about marrying her. They had been together for many years, so he had long ago given up any fantasy of living a carousing bachelor life. But, like the supervising prosecutor, he was neglecting his loyalty to his fiancée in an attempt to strengthen his bond with his friends. I wondered what she would think if she could hear him.

By this time, I had been married for six or seven years. When my friend said something to me about how he would soon join me in my prison, I cut him off. “This is an act,” I said. “You’re going to love being married, and you know it.” A few months after the wedding, when I asked how things were going, he said, “You were right. I love it.”

Deep down, my friend knew as well as I did that marriage would make him happy. But he concealed that knowledge. In his disloyalty to his fiancée, he was also being dishonest to himself and to his friends.

Loyalty and honesty often go together. This is not immediately obvious. We often assume that loyalty must be blind. Corporate and political leaders like to surround themselves with “yes men” who tell them what they want to hear and never challenge their decisions. They would do well to heed Confucius: “The wise man is intelligently, not blindly, loyal.”

If a friend or follower is truly loyal, then he or she is committed to helping you avoid mistakes. This requires honesty. Who was more loyal to the interests of President George W. Bush and the country he serves: Ken Adelman, the defense advisor who promised in 2002 that the invasion and subsequent liberation of Iraq would be “a cakewalk”? Or Colin Powell, the secretary of state who warned Bush about the “you break it, you own it” rule of military action? Whatever one thinks about the decision to topple Saddam Hussein, it is beyond dispute that Bush and the nation would have been well-served by more careful planning. By telling the president only what they thought he wanted to hear, advisors like Adelman served their own interests (remaining in the president’s good graces) but not the president’s. What may have looked to them like loyalty really was selfishness. Powell’s caution, viewed by some as disloyalty, showed true allegiance to his president and his country.

Real loyalty combines honesty with forebearance. If you offer bacon cheeseburgers to your morbidly obese friend, you endear yourself to him but endanger his life. Loyalty means urging your friend to care for his health. At the same time, we do not abandon our friends and family when we disapprove of their decisions. We remain at their side and try to guide them even when they are making mistakes.

As a public defender, I dealt daily with people who had made terrible mistakes. Many of my clients had done things that earned them society’s condemnation. I represented young men who had committed carjackings and robberies and assaults. Hearing of these crimes, few people would have much sympathy for these defendants. Many probably would share the prosecutor’s view that they should serve as much time in prison as the law permits.

But in case after case, my clients had parents and spouses and siblings who begged the court for leniency. These family members were not naïve. Indeed, they were themselves the most frequent victims of my clients’ bad judgment. They had seen their beloved son or husband or brother descend into methamphetamine addiction and sociopathic behavior. They wanted more than anyone to see my clients restored to normalcy. They were exhausted by the frequent disappointments and the constant shuttling between the bail bondsman and the jail. But they still wanted to spare their loved one the pain of prison. And even if the judges and prosecutors disagreed with the arguments for leniency, they never faulted the families for their loyalty.

Loyalty to Yourself
Few labels are more damaging in politics than “flip-flopper.” We admire consistency in our leaders. Mitt Romney was an enormously successful businessman before becoming governor of Massachusetts. When he decided to run for president in 2007, his candidacy seemed promising. He had wealth, executive experience, good looks and charisma. But he quickly lost credibility by publicly reversing his long-held positions on a series of significant issues. His campaign spiraled into irrelevancy, as the impression grew that he was loyal to no ideal other than his belief that he should be president.

Changing your mind in itself can be a sign of strength rather than weakness. Recall Ralph Waldo Emerson’s adage: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” As I argued in the chapter on Knowledge, it is dangerous to insist on our own infallibility. But even as we remain receptive to new information and ideas, we must be loyal to our fundamental values. The problem with Romney was not that his views evolved. It was that his stated positions did not seem to be tethered to any belief system at all. They were disposable, like Seth’s martial arts instructor and Tom, the deputy district attorney--things to be abandoned when it became convenient to do so.

Being loyal to yourself does not mean being intransigent in your beliefs. It just means having integrity. For children, I define integrity as “doing the right thing even when no one is looking.” As adults, integrity requires us to measure every decision against our core values. Before we act, we must ask ourselves, “Am I being true to myself and my principles?”

I think people often make choices that are convenient without asking themselves this question. As a result, each choice carries them a little further from the person they want to be. Eventually, they become aware of a gnawing dissatisfaction with their lives and wonder how they travelled so far afield.

Because I attended prestigious universities and was a Rhodes Scholar, I saw this phenomenon a lot. Students arrived with me at Harvard or Oxford with certain self-conceptions. They saw themselves as poets or politicians, philosophers or scientists. But as graduation approached, they faced a choice: To pursue a career that fulfilled their sense of themselves, or to succumb to the comfort of high-paying management consulting jobs.

Most of these people probably had never heard of management consulting when they started college. Surely none of them said, as children, “When I grow up, I want to be either a fireman or a consultant.” But large firms like McKinsey & Company aggressively recruit young Ivy Leaguers and Rhodes Scholars who have no real employment experience but plenty of intelligence and the willingness to work long hours for six-figure salaries.

And so, the would-be physics professors and historians suddenly could envision no other path than to become consultants. They streamed out of Harvard and Oxford and into McKinsey. And as the years went on, they seemed to age at an accelerated pace. Each time I saw them, their skin had grown grayer and the bags under their eyes appeared darker and deeper.

I believe their unhappiness stems from the distance between their fundamental values and their daily lives. Conversely, we can preserve our happiness by remaining loyal to ourselves. This requires a constant awareness of what kind of person we each want to be, and the ability to consciously make decisions that bring us each closer to becoming that person.

© 2008 Jordan Schreiber