Dissent, better part of loyalty

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Matthew Liljenstolpe
  • 56th Training Squadron
How many of us have heard a new commander say, "I expect your loyalty, and I hope to earn your respect?"

I believe that the meaning of this saying is often misinterpreted by its audience. The second half of that statement is easy enough to understand, but what do military commanders mean when they demand your loyalty?

When I speak about loyalty with Airmen, I'm reminded of a quote from Gen. Colin Powell.

"Loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I'll like it or not. Disagreement, at this state, stimulates me. But once a decision is made, the debate ends. From that point on loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own."

General Powell's quote perfectly summarizes what I think the term loyalty represents in the military. Notice that he mentions two aspects of what loyalty means to him. First, he believes that to display loyalty, a subordinate owes it to his superior to disagree in the form of an honest opinion. Secondly, subordinates must support the commander's final decision. The later is of particular importance in any military organization. Nothing will destroy unit morale and break the chains of command faster than an influential subordinate that openly shows contempt of a command decision.

So how do we as Airmen execute these concepts? For that I have some advice.

The better half of loyalty is in disagreement; what I'll call dissent. Dissent is an important part of decision making. Dissenting opinions provide rigor, which supports well-thought-out decisions.

To properly dissent with a supervisor, always go into the conversation armed with four things:

1. Respect. Remember that the conversation, by the nature of military customs is an unequal dialog. Also, take your emotions out of the equation.

2. Humility. While you may feel you're the one in the trenches with all the situational awareness, embrace the idea that you don't know all the forces at play. Your supervisor probably has a better grasp of the situation than you think.

3. Solutions. You're the expert. You will be the one that figures out the best way to solve a problem. Don't dissent if you can't offer a better way forward.

4. Loyalty. This is probably the hardest thing to do in practice. Remember that it is the job of commanders to command. Our job is to carry out those commands in accordance with the core values of integrity, service and excellence. It's a tough thing to garner buy-in from others on a decision that you disagree with, but as professional military officers, airmen and civilians, that's precisely what our core values demand of us. As General Powell put it, loyalty is to act "as if (the decision) were your own."

These concepts translate across all superior-subordinate relationships within our Air Force. Wing commanders must display loyalty to their MAJCOM commanders, group commanders to their wing commanders and so on all the way to airmen displaying loyalty to their font-line supervisor. In order to maintain a strong chain of command, from top to bottom, loyalty is an essential contract we must uphold at every link.