Levels of Loyalty_3x5 Leadership_from Cadet Issue

We don’t talk about loyalty very much and what it means within our teams. Thus, many leaders and our teammates are unclear about what loyalty truly means and what it should look like in our organizations. But this value is vital as it is part of the essential bedrock that mutual trust is built upon. Our teams will not get very far in results or development without loyalty to one another and to the organization. There’s an issue if we are unclear about such an important organizational dynamic and value.

The U.S. Army establishes loyalty as one of its seven core Army Values; this is how the Army defines it.

Bear true faith and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, the Army, your unit and other Soldiers. Bearing true faith and allegiance is a matter of believing in and devoting yourself to something or someone. A loyal Soldier is one who supports the leadership and stands up for fellow Soldiers. By wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army you are expressing your loyalty. And by doing your share, you show your loyalty to your unit.

It is interesting how this definition offers several things and people that Army Soldiers must be loyal to: The Constitution, the Army as a profession and organization, the subordinate unit(s) we are members of, and our fellow Soldiers. What happens if our loyalty to one of those conflicts with our loyalty to another? I believe we can find ourselves in situations where our loyalties battle against one another, forcing us to choose loyalty to one thing/group over another or an individual versus our unit.

This is why it is important to define our levels of loyalties – being clear on what and who we are loyal to, and which loyalties take precedence over others.

Defining Our Levels of Loyalty

As a member of a profession and/or organization, we must identify all of the things, groups, and people we are loyal to. As an Army leader, the above definition offered four loyalties I have. But how do I know which one is more important than another? We must define our “levels” of loyalties. The Army’s definition listed the four loyalties in that order; I must be loyal to The Constitution over anything else to include my units and Soldiers. I am also loyal to the Army and units over individual Soldiers.

Our levels of loyalty can look like this general “chip” model.

Levels of Loyalty_3x5 Leadership

It shows that as a leader, I am first and foremost committed to my profession and the standards that we espouse as core to who we are. Then, I am loyal to my organization at-large, the groups and teams I am part of, and lastly, to the individuals I work with. This model makes our levels of loyalty clear – I will never allow a lower-level loyalty to compromise a higher-level one. As a leader, I cannot and will not show loyalty to individuals over loyalty to my organization and profession.

To further help explain, below is my personal loyalty chip model in my current U.S. Army work context as an example.

Levels of Loyalty Example_3x5 Leadership

As an Army leader, I am first loyal to The Constitution, as explained earlier; that is the foundation for what I determine as objectively right and important. Next, I am loyal to the Army as a profession and the highest-level organization I am a member of. After that, I am loyal to the United States Military Academy, where I currently work, and the purpose we serve, values we live by, and what we aim to produce for our Army. Then, I am loyal to the Cadet company (B-2) I am charged to lead; I am committed to the standards and goals we’ve set for our company and our Cadets. Finally, I am loyal to individual Cadets as fellow teammates and people I care about. My loyalties cascade in that order and I will not allow a lower-level loyalty compromise a higher one.

I find myself telling Cadets more-and-more that, “I am first loyal to the Army. Then I’m loyal to USMA, to the Bulldogs, and then finally to you.” This is often tied to disciplinary or developmental conversations while Cadets continue to struggle and grow in their ability to objectively hold one another accountable to our Army, West Point, and Bulldog (company) standards.

So, what do correctly stacked loyalties look like in our teams and organizations? I think it starts with, and is most predominantly seen in, maintaining high standards and discipline. Professions are defined by their high personal and collective responsibility and mutual accountability. If we settle for anything less than the standards set by our profession and organization(s) and allow others to demonstrate subpar performance or standards, we are ultimately demonstrating a loyalty to them over our loyalty to our team, organization, and profession.

We must show a high and consistent commitment to our levels of loyalty. I argue that a varied commitment to our hierarchy of loyalties sends different messages and levels of ownership to our people.

  • A Leader with no commitment to their levels of loyalty: We are not clear on what/who we are loyal to and, as leaders, we tolerate poor performance and standards from our people. We compromise the standards and expectations espoused by our team(s), organization, and profession by not enforcing them. This leads to poor results, unprofessional units, and even extreme conditions as seen in examples like Black Hearts. That is a great, though harsh, case study in what it can look like when we allow our low-level loyalties to compromise higher ones.
  • Moderate commitment: As leaders, we enforce the standards established by our profession and organization, but we do not own it. We say things to the effect of, “we have to do this because our higher headquarters is making us, or because my boss told me we have to.” There is no ownership in this behavior and the leader does not identify as a member of those higher-levels they are a member of and, thus, loyal to.
  • High commitment: Leaders establish and enforce high standards by communicating messages like, “this is who WE are, this is what WE do, this is how WE do business, and why it is important.” There is high ownership as an identified member of our organization and profession, as well as high standards, results, and professionalism.

Should I Ever Violate These Loyalty Levels?

I believe that young leaders entering a profession as new members like the Army get themselves in the most trouble early on in their careers by inverting their “loyalty chip” and placing lower loyalties at the top. They do this under the guise of “taking care of Soldiers,” when in reality, they are compromising basic and important expectations of our units and our Army in order to maintain relationships (and even “likership”). I say this while reflecting on my own early Army career and absolutely falling victim to that attitude.

Yet, what if we enter a situation where we truly and objectively believe remaining loyal to an individual person first is right? I think there are times where standing up for and defending our people is just and correct, but in the end, when decisions are made we must commit and remain loyal to those decisions. I look back in my career at times where a Soldier violated a critical standard that warranted separation from service. However, I believed he/she demonstrated high potential for rehabilitation and continued service. I stood by my Soldier and argued for them through my chain of command up until the final decision was made. In the end, though, I remain committed to that final higher echelon decision no matter my personal opinions. That is how I demonstrate loyalty in the right way.


This model of loyalties can serve as an enduring reflective question and challenge for us as leaders: am I allowing a lower level loyalty to compromise my commitment to a higher level one in this situation or decision? It can also be a simple and effective model to use when challenging others to hold one another more accountable.

Have you defined your loyalties?

Have you properly layered them?

Finally, do you correctly live out and commit to these loyalties each day?

The thoughts and opinions shared in this post strictly represent my personal views only. They do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or the United States Military Academy.

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Picture credit: CADET Issue

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  1. I think this is an excellent thing to ask your soldiers (my sailors) to think about, long before any of those levels come into question. Integrity contributes a lot to our ability to maintain loyalties at the right levels, so we must make those loyalties known and stay true to them always–just like the way you remind your cadets where they fall in your levels of loyalty.

    Thanks for this, Josh!

  2. Have you ever heard of Vertical vs Horizontal Loyalty? It looks at your same premise from different perspectives, placing people, teammates, and peers on the horizontal plane of where we are. This includes, interestingly, 2ICs, like PSGs, 1SGs, and CSMs, when they’re your “best assigned friend”. Vertical loyalty would be up the chain of command and organizational hierarchy, but it’s also to institutional entities (like the Constitution or Army Values). I think the addition of peers and others on the horizontal plane may be a more holistic view of what goes on “on the ground” and could explain in more detail, for ex, why two teams, squads, platoons or even companies could be fiercely loyal to each other as peer organizations. These interesting dynamics may not all be completely or clearly captured by your model, while it is still very useful.

  3. Josh, very timely article for something I am working through with my squadron. As always well stated and useful tool as my cadet leadership and I work through this.

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