Undying Loyalty?

Pondering a virtue all but left behind in an era of self-interest

March 04, 2002|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

In thy face I see the map of honor, truth, and loyalty.

-- William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2

Yuppies don't have loyalty. They have useful relationships and meaningful encounters.

-- English religious leader William Kristol

If you've been paying attention to the news, you've no doubt noticed that one virtue in particular has been taking a drubbing lately. To say the least, these have not been proud days for loyalty, and not only because of John Walker Lindh.

FOR THE RECORD - A story on loyalty in yesterday's Today section misidentified William Kristol. He is a political commentator and the publisher of The Weekly Standard. The Sun regrets the error.

Enron, the Mommie Dearest of corporations, treated its employees like dupes in a con game. The Baltimore Ravens are bidding adieu to a passel of popular players who helped win a championship. And companies such as our own Black & Decker, which have no shame about squeezing localities for handouts in good times, have shown themselves only too willing to ship jobs overseas in bad.

But no need to single out any one transgressor. According to a recent survey, fewer than half of the employees of American companies believe their employer merits loyalty. The mania for the better deal has become the Holy Grail of an era. Hot young MBAs jump from company to company with the fidelity of a lothario. Doctors and patients barely stay together long enough to get lab results back. Professional sports franchises demonstrate all the commitment of cross-country bus tours.

The Boy Scouts should think about revising their ideal to better capture the age. A Boy Scout is trustworthy, thrifty and ... flighty?

Hey, even American spies aren't what they used to be. Julius Rosenberg, remember, was at least a true believer in the cause of communism. What did Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen sell out for? Nothing but money, baby.

He has every characteristic of a dog except loyalty.

-- Henry Fonda in The Best Man

What's going on here? Moral malaise? Mass commitaphobia? Or is it, as in the view of Robert P. Lawry, director of the Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western University, a generalized shallowness, a shared attention-deficit disorder that results in "this whole lack of sticktoitness?"

No and no and no.

It's far too simple to rue the old days, to suggest that we're not the men and women we were, that, for instance, we're not worthy to occupy the same ecosystem as the Greatest Generation, supposedly the paragons of loyal behavior. Before we sell our own corner of eternity short on the loyalty meter, think no further back than Sept. 11 and the extraordinary acts of selflessness and devotion on that terrible day.

"The premise of diminished loyalty has some appeal but is seriously flawed," says J.F. Watts, dean of humanities and the arts at the City College of New York.

Look around, Watts notes; acts of loyalty are apparent everywhere. Does anyone in his or her right mind honestly believe parents today are any less self-sacrificing when it comes to their children? Are alumni less passionate about their colleges? Are citizens of New York -- or many other locales -- any less fervent about their city?

OK, so let's accept that we're still capable of loyalty. Great. Or is it great? If someone is described as "loyal," the assumption is that a compliment has been made. But that is far from always the case. Sometimes, loyalty is not all it's cracked up to be.

Loyalty is one of our more complicated virtues. It cannot be evaluated without context, unlike, say, some of the other characteristics of the archetype Boy Scout. Like bravery. It's hard to imagine how courage could be deemed anything but an unalloyed, positive attribute. Same with kindness. And when are courtesy, cheerfulness or cleanliness unwelcome?

But loyalty demands qualification. Loyalty to whom or to what? Didn't those who herded the innocent into gas chambers regard themselves as loyal soldiers of National Socialism? Did Father Geoghan, the child molester in Boston, deserve the years of loyalty from the Catholic archdiocese? Did Richard Nixon deserve the loyalty of his followers?

Describing someone as loyal is meaningless without reference. "The only thing that makes loyalty logical is a set of principles and the people and the institutions who embody those principles," says Frederick Reichheld, a sort of guru of loyalty in the business world. "You don't stay married to a spouse who beats you up every morning. That's abuse. Unthinking loyalty to a leader who is cheating customers and investors, that makes no sense at all."

But for the right cause, loyalty can be a ferocious incentive. Just ask the soldiers of Black Hawk Down who risked everything to rescue their comrades in Somalia. Less dramatically but just as tellingly, Reichheld argues in his book Loyalty Rules! that loyalty -- to customers and to employees -- is the pathway to prosperity.

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