Loyalty from the Top Down

Manassas National Battlefield, Near Brawner Farm
Manassas National Battlefield, Near Brawner Farm

Last Sunday I walked the battlefield near Manassas, Virginia where Union and Confederate troops fought for the second time, August 28-30, 1862. Second Manassas (or Second Bull Run) was another major defeat for the Union Army of Virginia, then under the command of Major General John Pope. The Union suffered nearly 14,000 killed, wounded, missing or captured over over the three days of the battle and its army was driven from the field in a hasty retreat.

The turning point in the battle came on August 30 when five divisions under Confederate Major General James Longstreet counterattacked into flank of the Union V Corps then assaulting right flank of Stonewall Jackson’s line.

Immediately after the defeat, Pope deflected blame onto the V Corps commander, Major General Fitz John Porter, even though 1) Porter had warned Pope of a large Confederate force on his left, and 2) Pope had ordered the fatal attack against Porter’s advice, and 3) Porter’s corps executed the attack on Jackson’s line bravely, while suffering huge losses. Still, Pope insisted, it was Porter’s fault.

Not content to relieve Porter of command, Pope soon brought Porter to a court-martial where he was convicted of disobeying orders and misconduct in front of the enemy. Only after decades of gathering witness statements, documenting the battlefield, garnering support from military leaders and appealing to the president and to congress, did Porter eventually clear his name.

Manassas National Battlefield, Near Brawner Farm
Manassas National Battlefield, Near Brawner Farm

The situation is a little more complicated than that, and it involves both Army and national politics. Upon learning of the story, though, I thought about how differently Dwight Eisenhower dealt with the even the possibility of defeat.

Before the D-Day invasions of June 1944, Eisenhower wrote a letter to be published in the event the landings failed. The letter concluded:

The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone. – General Dwight Eisenhower

From the Army leadership manuals to the latest offerings from leadership gurus, the message is the same: a high-trust environment is essential to organizational agility and success. That kind of trust requires subordinates to experience loyalty from on high. It’s hard to take initiative, make decisions or even act responsibly if you think your boss is going to throw you under the bus if things go wrong.

Loyalty is a two way street. It’s not just something that leaders should expect from those they lead. It’s also something that followers have the right to expect from those who lead them.

Ultimately, how we treat the members of our teams is a spiritual issue. The Biblical story of David and Bathsheba really ought to be called the story of David and Uriah. It is the story of David’s lethal disloyalty to one of his commanders. David’s untrustworthiness had lasting consequences for his kingdom. More than that, though, it was a personal moral failing for which the prophet Nathan called him out.

May those who labor under our leadership, and whose lives depend so much on the loyalty we show them, never be disappointed by the trust they put in us.