Loyalty is among the most valued characteristics between friends, family, teammates, and co-workers. In fact, I submit that a relationship is virtually meaningless without it. Each of us wants to know that we can count on others when we need them…and even when we don’t. I have the pleasure of working with and for some exceptional people who clearly understand the importance of loyalty and the high level of trust it engenders. We can all point to people in our life we consider to be loyal, people to whom we are loyal, and some of us may be part of a relationship where our loyalty goes unreciprocated. In my opinion, loyalty must be more than reciprocal to be of real value, it must be omnidirectional.

Some institutions are more loyal to their employees than others and some employees are more loyal to their employers than others. The same can be said for company/customer relationships, person/person relationships, and any other relationship combination we can dream up. As I look at the leaders with whom I have served over the years, the ones who make it most enjoyable to come to work, the ones who develop the most capable teams, and the ones who help us realize our potential are those who visibly demonstrate “Loyalty Down.” Any and every organization has a structure that communicates the roles and responsibilities of the members of the team, which in turn shapes how members of the team interact with one another. Some are more codified and some are flatter than others, but all have a structure whether purposely shaped at the outset or as a result of repeated practices. For those of us in the military, it is very obvious who is in charge, what our responsibilities are, and the level of authority we enjoy. We are loyal to our Country, our Service, our Unit, and our Shipmates. The oath we take formalizes the loyalty we have to “those appointed over us”, but there is no required oath that communicates loyalty to those horizontal or subordinate to us. Then again, no oath is necessary, for it is not the words we say, but the actions we take that communicate our commitment and demonstrate our loyalty.

Over the last few months, I have witnessed extremely senior members of our military speak to the importance of loyalty down, while personally demonstrating their commitment to the same. In fact, I keep the leadership philosophy of the 3-Star Marine Corps General with whom I currently serve on my desk as a constant reminder. There is much wisdom on that one piece of paper and my favorite is, “Don’t Suck Up…Suck Down!” I can assure you that those are far more than words to him and we all know it, as he “sucks down” on a consistent basis. One of my mentors was recently nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to one of the most trusted positions of leadership an American citizen can earn. As part of the Assumption of Command Ceremony, he shared his calculus in accepting the position, as well as the significant challenges and responsibilities that came with leading both US Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. There were four reasons he chose not to retire and instead reaffirm his oath, but one stood above the others in my mind…his selfless desire to continue to give back on behalf of, and as a means to express gratitude to those who have invested in him over the years: his mentors and advocates. Those who helped and at times forced him to grow, creating opportunities on his behalf that uniquely equipped him to turn these plentiful challenges into abundant opportunities for our Nation. Yes, his pedigree gave people reason to want to help him reach his potential, though there was nothing in it for them at the time. I can personally tell you that he is as committed to a “loyalty down” philosophy as those who paid it forward through him, and I am but one of many who is better because of it. Those of us fortunate enough to benefit from others who mentor us, advocate on our behalf and care enough to make us better know that the only way to truly express our gratitude is to emulate the same and be as committed to developing others.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is credited with the quote, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” I agree wholeheartedly. I would also offer that a return on an investment in a deserving individual will be realized. It may not be realized today and we are likely not to directly benefit from such an investment, but someone will. And that someone will likely be unable to do anything for us, which makes it even more meaningful.

  • In whom are you investing?
  • What do your actions communicate about your character?
  • Would others say that you demonstrate “Loyalty Down” or are you only focused on those who are in a position to directly help you?

Don’t Suck up…Suck Down!