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Honesty v. Loyalty, Federal Edition


Albert Einstein Quote on Truth: Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.(photo credit)

Perhaps we should thank President Trump for giving educators many reasons to dust-off old lessons and come up with new presentations on what we thought were long-settled matters like respect for the fundamental principles of democracy, the balance of powers among the three branches of government, and the essential imperatives of honor and integrity in both personal and professional life.  Thank you, President Trump!  We have a whole semester’s worth of teaching modules and more on the way!

Today’s lesson, ripped right from the headlines as most are these days, concerns the difference between the bedrock virtue of honesty in all matters and the pleasant trait of loyalty among one’s colleagues.  Certainly, a utopian view of human behavior wishes for both honesty and loyalty in all relationships.  But, alas, life is complicated, and it’s simply not possible to have both the virtue of honesty and value of loyalty present in all relationships at all times.

So, which prevails?

Honesty trumps loyalty, no contest.  In every professional relationship, we must expect honesty first, and from a rigorous adherence to honesty we should then be able to build loyalty among colleagues.  I’ll get to personal relationships in a minute, but let’s stick with professionals.

The immediate issue seems to have arisen in a private dinner that President Trump had with then-FBI Director James Comey.  Reports have circulated — denied by the White House — that the President asked Mr. Comey for a pledge of loyalty, but Mr. Comey demurred, simply saying that the President could count on his honesty.  Mr. Trump is apparently so angry about this account that he subsequently tweeted a veiled threat:  “James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” (@realdonaldtrump) Doesn’t seem like a good way to encourage loyalty among other staff, does it?  Some reporters claim that Mr. Comey’s refusal to give a loyalty pledge is one reason, among many, why Mr. Trump fired him — a claim the White House denies.

But setting aside the questions of possible obstruction of justice and witness intimidation in the Trump-Russia case (the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russian ties was a reason the president, himself, admitted for Comey’s firing), the story does raise the very important question of the meaning of loyalty in the workplace and in national governance matters, and whether a president, or an employer, or anyone in a position of authority can require a loyalty pledge or oath from subordinates.

As an employer, myself, I certainly understand the desirability of loyalty among colleagues.  Disloyalty can create a toxic environment that ultimately harms the business, destroying the teamwork that is necessary to thrive, harming reputations and plunging governance into crisis.  So, yes, loyalty has its purposes.  Confidentiality, privacy and discretion are also important — exalting honesty does not necessarily mean that every matter needs a broad public airing.  On the other hand, observing the rule that whatever you do, think about how it would look on the front page of the newspaper is a pretty good rule most of the time.  Assume public exposure of your actions if honesty, itself, is not reward enough.  But a good executive also knows that putting honesty first is a better way to win loyalty than commands with veiled threats of harm to the person’s position.

Compelling loyalty oaths, demanding loyalty at all costs — putting loyalty ahead of truth — these executive behaviors are far, far worse, moral offenses against fundamental integrity, and, ultimately, they can be fatal both to the executive who demands loyalty and to the organization and the people who rely on it.   A decade or more ago, corporate scandals that put loyalty ahead of honesty destroyed companies (Enron, Arthur Andersen) and led to laws demanding greater protection for whistleblowers and stricter corporate oversight.

Whistleblower protections exist in the federal government, too, but as still happens all too often in some places, an obtuse executive with a motivation to hide self-dealing or unlawful activities might still lean on a subordinate to cover-up misconduct, to lie about the facts.  In 1974, President Richard Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment in the Watergate case, not because he approved the “third rate burglary” of Democratic offices but because the Oval Office tapes revealed he had orchestrated a cover-up of the crime.

Lying eventually has its own comeuppance.  I have written previously about the tendency of the Trump Administration to manipulate the truth for its own purposes, a trait surely shared with previous presidential administrations on both sides as well as other political entities, but still, the overwhelming volume of daily untruths in the current administration is already legendary.  Some people criticized me for calling out the administration’s constant manipulation of truth but it has continued to this day, even worse; as an educator, the issue is not about political parties, but rather, about the moral center of those we vest with responsibility for our national governance.  “But what about…” other politicians is an interesting discussion about what should have been in the past, but not a substitute for holding the current incumbents to the highest possible standard of truthfulness which is a moral issue, not a political position.

James Comey was right to insist that all he could give the president was his honesty.  Mr. Comey certainly has played a controversial, provocative, at times infuriating role in the political story of our times.  Probably only historians will be able to untangle the wicked web of what went on with Hillary’s emails, Comey’s letters, Trump’s Russian connections, Putin’s plots, WikiLeaks and the demise of the Clinton candidacy in November 2016.  Mr. Comey may well have made many bad choices that complicated and twisted the 2016 election.  But in standing up to his boss to stake out the essential ground of honesty, he was absolutely right, and may find some historic vindication for his actions.

And what about private personal struggles with honesty v. loyalty?  Certainly, there are personal situations where a large measure of discretion is important — discretion, not falsehood.  The old saw “Honey, does this make me look fat?” could well be answered with, “The other outfit is really great on you!” But aside from the gentle pleasantries we need to keep going each day, the rule of honesty is never out of fashion.  Relationships built on honesty are lasting; relationships built on struggles for power and control — which is what a loyalty command is really all about — ultimately fail.

At Trinity, the Honor Code remains our strong central pillar for ethical education in the virtue of integrity and essential importance of honesty in all matters.  Honor and integrity are the bedrock on which we build our understanding of justice.  Justice fails when lies prevail.  The current ethical climate in Washington is a good lesson in why we continue to use the oldest of teaching tools to help educate students to make ethical choices in modern life.  Many Trinity students go on to careers in government and related businesses, and understanding how to stake out the platform for honesty and truth is essential to personal integrity and effective professional lives.

What do you think?  Comments welcome in the box below.

Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: