Loyalty Factor: Key to the Good Life
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
It is inconceivable to attain the good life
in the absence of good relationships. Our joy is multiplied and
sorrow divided a thousand times, when we share our feelings with
family and friends. In the final analysis, all of one's strengths
and achievements would not mean very much, when one has to grow
old and die alone, without a single friend or loved one. The positive
psychology of optimal functioning sounds hollow indeed without a
healthy dose of meaningful personal relationships. The good life
always flows like a river; it is never a dead sea, no matter how
rich in deposits!
Years have passed since cancer claimed the life
of my good friend Tung. But even now, he is still very much part
of my life. His kindness and his loyalty during a very difficult
period of my life helped restore my faith in God and in humanity.
What a faithful friend he was- sticking closer than a brother through
thick and thin, and willing to give his all to me without expecting
anything in return. My life has become richer, because he remains
part of the roots, which continue to provide nutrient and strength,
which flow from me to others. In a real sense, he lives in and through
For nearly 30 years, Tung and I lived in separate
parts of the world. We seldom visited each other; nor did we write
each other except for the yearly exchange of Christmas greetings.
But we both knew that we could always count on each other, regardless
of the circumstances. The bond holds, in spite of distance, time,
separation and death.
What is the most important invisible force that
keeps individuals connected? What protects relationships from being
broken by the storms of life? What is the cement that solidifies
the bond between friends? What is the fuel that drives productivity?
Loyalty immediately comes to my mind. But what
is loyalty? Where does it come from? Intuitively, we know that it
is more steadfast and sturdier than feelings of love. It is even
broader than friendship, because it is possible to have loyalty
without friendship, such as loyalty to one's government or organization.
We can always point to a dog and say: "Here is an example of loyalty".
Canine loyalty is legendary - How dogs risk
their own lives to protect their masters; how they remain faithful
in the face of poverty and temptation; and how forgiving they are
even when their masters are abusive. Such blind, slavish allegiance
may not be an ideal model for human loyalty. But still we can learn
some lessons from our four-legged furry friends about what it means
to be loyal.
The meaning of loyalty
The dictionary meaning of the word "loyal" typically
includes: (a) Unswerving in allegiance to one's sovereign or government,
(b) Being faithful to a person, ideal, custom or organization, which
one has an obligation to support; and (c) Being devoted and dedicated
to some one to whom fidelity is due.
These definitions imply that loyalty is born
out of reciprocal relations and mutual trust. It is difficult to
remain loyal, when loyalty is not reciprocated. It would be difficult
to continue a relationship after the betrayal of a trusted friend.
But the heart of loyalty comes from precepts, such as duty and love,
which are embedded in some moral philosophy. One may say that loyalty
begins with faithfulness to one's own ethical principles.
The benefits of loyalty are many. It ennobles
the soul, wards off temptations and transforms relationships. It
is the guiding light for decisions and actions in a rapidly changing
world. It is a commitment of the heart, an exercise of the will,
based on the strength of one's character rather than the intensity
of emotions. That is why loyalty can buoy us over troubled waters,
even when feelings are hurt. Loyalty is the bedrock of all healthy
and trustworthy relations; without loyalty, it is impossible for
any relationship to survive the inevitable temptations to betray
Loyalty can also be defined by exclusions. To
be loyal means that you will never betray a friend's confidence
for personal gains, and that you will not abandon a friend even
when that association may jeopardize your advancement in the corporate
or political world. Definitely, you will not be part of any character
assassination directed against your friend in spite of the pressure
from your superiors and colleagues. It means that you will not listen
to innuendoes and refuse to question your friend's integrity until
you have direct confirmation. It also means that you will not give
up on a relationship, simply because of some misunderstanding or
difficulty. Finally, it means that you will never exploit people's
trust or misuse their loyalty.
The marriage vow is supposed to be a pledge
of mutual loyalty born of love. But loyalty has become rare in today's
marriages. I still cannot believe what I heard from a graduate student,
who was completing his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University
of California in Los Angeles. In a casual conversation, when I enquired
about his marriage he responded: "I've been married for three years.
She is a nurse, working to put me through graduate school. Right
now, I am happy with my marriage, but who knows. One day, when she
no longer meets my needs, I'm afraid that would be the end of our
marriage." I often wonder: Does he know the meaning of loyalty?
Is loyalty only applicable to situations beneficial to him?
In contrast, consider the example of Ruth of
the Old Testament. Ruth's mother-in-law Naomi was from Judah, and
she lost her husband and her two sons. Then Naomi said to her two
daughters-in-law, "Go back each of you to your mother's home. May
the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and
to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the
home of another husband" (vs.8 & 9). Thus, Noami blessed and released
her daughters-in-law to return to their own homeland Moab. Basically,
she was saying, "Don't stay here and suffer with me. Go and create
a new life for yourselves."
That seems to be a sensible course of action,
since Ruth had already fulfilled her marriage vow and she would
receive help from her own folks by returning to Moab. Guess what
was Ruth's reply? "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from
you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your
people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will
die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it
ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me" (vs.16
Ruth's loyalty was extended to her mother-in-law
and to her adopted country, regardless of the cost. Her mind was
made up and nothing could persuade her to abandon Naomi, who had
suffered a series of blows and had lost everything. This is a perfect
example of loyalty stemming from sacrificial love and moral duty.
Loyalty does not always make economic sense.
At times, it seems totally foolish and irrational. But that is the
beauty and power of loyalty, because it operates on a higher, spiritual
plane. Loyalty sings a different tune, known only to those with
an appreciative, faithful soul.
The concept of loyalty is indeed rich and complex.
Here are some features about loyalty, which deserve closer examination:
- It is unwavering faithfulness in good times
- It involves the whole person - body, heart
- It demands honesty, courage and sacrifice.
- It reveals one's true character.
- It is a spontaneous response to trust and
- It is selective and reciprocal.
- It is offered by faith but earned by trust.
- It is essential for building lasting relationships.
- It is a key to the good life.
- It is the foundation of any positive community
- It is a building block of a civil society.
- It is one of essential human virtues.
- It is an essential aspect of spirituality.
The Spirit of Loyalty: East
does the concept of loyalty come from? It depends on the historical
and cultural contexts. Loyalty has long been exalted as a virtue
in both the East and West, but it follows rather different philosophical
In the East, loyalty is duty-based and relationship-oriented,
largely due to Confucius'
influence. He emphasizes filial piety (Xiào or Hsiao) as the greatest
virtue; it includes obedience to parental authority and serving
parents with propriety and affection. Social order and world peace
hinge on the practice of filial piety.
Loyalty is the equivalent of filial piety in
governing the relationship between ruler and ministers. The Chinese
character loyalty ( Zhong or Chung) contains two symbols: The top
symbol stands for "center" or "middle", while the lower symbol stands
for "heart" or "mind." Thus, loyalty means a heart unswerving from
the center. However, Confuscius did not advocate blind obedience
and slavish allegiance, because the ruler must possess humaneness
(Rén or Jen) and moral rectitude in order to demonstrate that he
had received the "mandate
Often filial piety conflicts with loyalty to
the state. Sometimes, one is confronted with the moral choice between
taking one's own life or taking other people's lives for what one
believes. These conflicts are dramatized in the recent
movie Hero. Rightly or wrongly, the protagonist Nameless
(Jet Lee) resolves the dilemma of divided loyalties by giving up
his plan to revenge for his parents and sacrificing his own life
for the greater good - the prospect of creating a united and peaceful
The Confuscian principle of loyalty has been
extended to relationships between employer and employee and between
friends. It governs all sorts of relationships outside the family.
In China, the word loyalty is often used as part of a compound term
including honesty or rightousness. Thus, loyalty is considered the
mark of good character and honor, while disloyalty is linked to
shame and moral failure.
In Japan, the concept of loyalty is closely
associated with Bushido, which originally refers to the moral code
developed among the samurai class. According to this code of honor,
a samurai was bound by duty to die for his lord in battle rather
than flee or surrender. Subsequently, Bushido
became a national ideal, and the foundatioin for ethical training,
but it cannot completely shed its martial connection.
Influenced by both Zen and Confuscianism, Bushido
emphasizes the virtues of loyalty to one's superiors, unquestioning
obedience to duty, and the willingness to sacrifice oneself. The
spirit of Bushido contributed to the rise of Japanese nationalism
prior to 1945. Since then, Bushido remains an important part of
martial arts. For example, one of the goals of Aikido
is to develop a sense of loyalty. Aikido also teaches the application
of loyalty to daily life, such as being faithful in fulfilling one's
duty at school and at work.
Korean's traditonal thought is based on Confucianism and Buddhism;
it is also characterized by loyalty to the country and filial piety
to parents. The Taekwondo
spirit of martial art representing the tradtional thoughts,
emphasizes three virtues: loyalty, filial piety and reliability.
This idealogy gives practitioners of Taekwondo the courage of no
retreat from fighting for their country. It also inspires them to
live a life of self-discipline and devotion to duty.
It is tempting for us to dismiss these traditional
concepts of loyalty and filial piety as being archaic and feudalistic.
However, we may want to ask ourselves this question: What accounts
for the strong family ties and friendship bonds in Asian countries?
Those of us who have made friends with orientals may have discovered
something wonderful about loyalty - its sweet generosity, transparent
honesty, and unconditional acceptance. Once we have a handle on
the loyalty factor, everything else in relationships seems more
Like an invisible hand, Confucius's teaching
continues to shape the Asian personality in terms of valuing good
relationships not only for personal development but also for the
long-term collective good. However, this invisible hand is no longer
detectable in some parts of Asia, where the gods of money and consumerism
have driven out the last vestige of traditional values.
In the West, particularly Western Europe and
North America, the concept of loyalty is love-based rather than
duty-based. It is God-oriented rather than people-oriented. Consequently,
violation of loyalty results in guilt rather than shame as in the
The spirit of loyalty originates mostly from
the Judeo-Christian teaching on being faithful and loyal to the
only one true God. "You shall have no other gods before me", so
God commanded Isreal through Moses as part of his covenant. The
Bible also teaches that God is faithful in keeping his convenant
of love, and expects his people to love him back wholeheartedly.
All God's commandments can be summarized in two commandments: "Love
the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and
with all your strength and with all your mind, and Love your neighbour
as your self" (Luke 10:27).
Jesus Christ fulfilled this twofold loyalty
by laying down his own life as a loving sacrifice for others in
obedience to God's will. He also challenged his diciples to do likewise:
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater
love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends"
"But I have not found any evidence of such sacrificial
love in the church," some readers may protest, "In fact, I even
have difficulty developing friendship with Christians."
What can I say? What has happened to loyalty?
Is it possible that it has been corroded by a conflation of a self-centered
theology and indivdualistic culture? The perverted teaching that
Christianity means prosperity on earth and a passport to Heaven
would hardly inspire believers to be loyal to others.
Paradoxically, in parts of the world where Christians
are persecuted and their faith is put to a severe test, their loyalty
reclaims the presence of Christ and reveals its death-defying and
life-transforming power. At the deepest level, loyalty remains a
spiritual mystery that is both humbling and inspiring.
Another source of traditional values in the
West may be traced to the moral code of chivalry. Loyalty is one
of the virtues of chivalry. In the modern context, away from the
martial activities of medieval knights, chivalry remains a romantic
ethic that still appeals to the die-hard idealists. Steen
Jensen concludes that "We may never live out a romantic ethic,
but it is food as nourishing as any at the table, and a wealth as
dear as any coin of the time." There is a touch of sad resignation
in his sobering assessment of the spirit of Chivalry, as if he were
partaking of the last dinner.
In both East and West, down through the ages,
the meaning of loyalty has evolved from lofty moral ideals to marketing
gimmicks such as "consusmer loyalty", "brand name loyalty" and "loyalty
program." Ironically, in trying to use "loyalty" as a marketing
tool, corporations may have inadvertently killed the very spirit
of loyalty they attempt to cultivate.
The problem with loyalty
There has been a sea of change in people's attitude
toward loyalty. Many have difficulty with the traditional virtue
of loyalty nowadays. When we look at the world around us, all we
can see is the opposite of loyalty - deception, manipulation, greed,
corruption, and selfishness. The bitter experience of betrayal becomes
commonplace. Government and leaders routinely break their promises
and lie to people in order to keep their grip on power. Employers
no longer value loyalty; even the most dedicated and gifted workers
can be let go of in the name of merger or bottom line. Marital infidelity
is on the increase, aided by websites that facilitate secret rendezvous.
Friends betray each other's confidence to win brownie points from
the boss. No wonder people become cynical and suspicious.
do we do when the object of our loyalty appears undeserving and
untrustworthy? How do we react when our trust is exploited and our
loyalty is betrayed? What is the point of being loyal when we are
overwhelmed by the incessant onslaught of dirty tricks and despicable
lies in the cheating culture?
Another puzzling problem is that loyalty can
be either a virtue or vice, depending on which side of the conflict
one stands. Suicide bombers are terrorists from the Western perspective,
but they are regarded as martyrs and heroes from the perspective
of militant Islam. Terms such as Saddam-loyalists or Sadr-loyalists
repel us as they immediately conjure up images of brutal killings
of civilians. But the same terms symbolize courage and loyalty in
many parts of the Arab world. In the post-9/11 world, loyalty has
become a controversial concept. Since intense national or religious
loyalty has become a source of horrendous human destructiveness,
how can we embrace this traditional concept?
All these troubling questions have contributed
to the development of a more pragmatic, benefit-based loyalty. The
basic attitude is: "I will remain loyal, as long as it is good for
me", as demonstrated by my friend at UCLA. Such an individualistic,
situational approach to ethics has become increasingly common in
Recently, Alan Wolfe's research team (2001)
interviewed a diverse group of 200 Americans and did an additional
telephone survey of a national sample. Americans were asked questions
such as "Is loyalty still appreciated in America? Can we still be
honest in America today?" The results show that even though Americans
have rejected the conventional, religious versions of virtues of
loyalty and honesty, they are still struggling to lead a good life
by developing their own moral compass and following loosely defined
The brave new world of moral freedom is primarily
based on self-interest rather than immutable moral principles. Is
it possible that this benefit-based approach to loyalty is the cause
rather than the solution of the problem of disintegration of relations
and communities? Is it possible that self-seeking hinders rather
than facilitates one's quest for the good life?
After the twists and turns in our excursion
into the domain of loyalty, where do we stand? What have we learned?
What is the best practice of loyalty? In what way is loyalty key
to the good life? Any attempt to distill a complex, controversial
concept is a risky venture. What I can offer is a set of personal
guidelines, and hope that these loyalty rules have some universal
- By definition, the core concept of authentic
loyalty is unswerving allegiance based on duty or love.
Loyalty purely motivated by self-interest is not really loyalty,
because it does not have what it takes to pass the test of trial
- There may be one hundred compelling reasons
for throwing loyalty out of the window, but there
is one sufficient reason for keeping loyalty - we simply cannot
do without it! Aristotle, the father of eudemonia (the
good life), once said, "Without friends, no one would want to
live, even if he had all other goods." But how can we find a faithful
friend who loves us unconditionally without cultivating loyalty?
- Loyalty is also
essential for the success of organizations and corporations,
because it keeps people connected, creates a safe and trusting
environment, and provides the fuel that drives economic success.
Authentic loyalty is even essential for "loyalty programs"; these
programs are doomed to fail, if they are based on deception and
manipulation rather than trust and caring for the customers. Frederick
Reichheld (2001) has documented that successful companies,
and Cisco Systems,
practice loyalty to build lasting relationships; the principles
they practice include: "listen hard and talk straight" and "preach
what you practice."
- Our first duty
is to treat others with loyalty, until they prove to be unworthy
of our trust. Personally, I am a hopeless "sucker" when
it comes to loyalty. No matter how many times I have been burned,
I still want to believe that people can be trusted. For example,
some one I used to trust as a good friend has betrayed me many
times. Each time, I struggled to find a way to justify and forgive
him only to find myself betrayed again and again. Finally, I had
to come to my senses and conclude that he was not trustworthy
and he could not be counted as a friend. But, like a loyal fool,
I am still willing to bet my life on loyalty, because it is a
rare treasure accessible only to faithful souls. It is worth it,
even if I have to be betrayed a thousand times in order to find
a loyal friend like Tung.
- Loyalty can
be a powerful source of good and evil. We can avoid the
danger of ethnic strife and terrorism, when national or religious
loyalty is governed by broader moral principles, such as "love
your neighbor" and "do no harm". To the extent that loyalty violates
other moral principles, it ceases to be a virtue. Authentic loyalty
is never blind passion or destructive ambition; it calls for commitment
to the highest moral ideals. Ultimately, we
need to ask ourselves whether our loyalty to a leader or a cause
contributes to the good life not only for ourselves but also for
- The audacious quest for true human worth
cannot end without finding authentic loyalty. Blessed are those
who have discovered it. Life is worth living when there are trustworthy
friends and larger causes deserving our loyalty.
When everything seems hopelessly bleak, and
all hell breaks loose around us, only loyalty remains. By its very
nature, loyalty prevails even in the worst imaginable circumstances.
Yes, we can still realize the good life even in the midst of horror
and terror, when we have found a faithful friend, who will never
leave us, nor forsake us; and that is no small miracle! Don't you
want to cultivate loyalty as a priceless, precious pearl?
Reichheld F. F. (2001). Loyalty
rules! How leaders build lasting relationships. MA: Harvard
The Bible. New
International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible
Wolfe, A. (2001). Moral
freedom: The search for virtue in a world of choice.
W. W. Norton.