Benedict Arnold is a name you may recognize as America’s most famous traitor. He was a continental army officer who, thanks to his bravery and intelligence in such key battles as Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga, attained the rank of major general before being placed in command of West Point by George Washington. 

Yet Arnold was unhappy and felt that others were receiving undue recognition for his work. He socialized with British sympathizers, borrowed heavily to fund a lavish lifestyle and eventually was busted for his plot to surrender West Point to the Brits in return for a £20,000 (roughly $4.2 million in today’s dollars) reward and the rank of Brigadier General in the British army. 

A name likely less familiar is Hiroo Onoda, one of the most loyal individuals in history. Onoda was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who fought in World War II. In December 1944 he was sent to the Philippines on a covert mission and ordered not to surrender or to take his own life under any circumstances. 

When the Americans captured the area only 65 days later, he took to the hills and held his promise. Despite numerous attempts to notify him of the war’s end, he did not stand down until 29 years later when his retired commanding officer traveled to meet him in person and officially relieved him of his military duties. 

So, why the lesson in history? Because we’re human, we tend to think in contrasts – hero or villain. Honor or dishonor. Defender or murderer. Patriot or zealot. 

The contrast between Arnold and Onoda is, on the one hand, stark, while at the same time more mundane. These are humans, after all, and they’re filled with contradictions. 

Given the choice, a leader might be quick to favor Onoda and his undying loyalty to the cause. Yet while Onoda was delivering on his commitments to his leaders and displaying what may be viewed as honor, he was also killing innocent people for years after the war’s end. Benedict Arnold and his duplicity is easy to reject, but prior to his treason, he was also one of the Continental Army’s best generals. The point? Unquestioned loyalty is a siren song, but we must be careful to look beyond surface level displays.

Why? Before we answer that, let’s define loyalty. Oxford languages states that it is simply “a strong feeling of support or allegiance.” 

That’s it! It isn’t blind faith, it isn’t unwavering commitment, it isn’t ‘no questions asked’ or ‘at all costs.’ As leaders, we think we want these things, but what we’re really looking for — and what we should reward — are demonstrations of accountability, dependability, capability and autonomy:

ACCOUNTABILITY: We assume that those most loyal to us will be honest with us when the opposite is more often the case. As in the story of the emperor with no clothes, these individuals often believe they have much more to lose if they displease us. Easier is to appease, even when it means telling a naked king he’s wearing a beautiful silk suit. Yet an employee who is willing to have tough conversations is far more valuable. Holding themselves and others accountable to facilitate honest, open dialogue means space for improvement, not just continuation.

DEPENDABILITY: Benedict Arnold didn’t do what he’d promised for his leaders or for his country. Hiro Onoda did but caused death and destruction in the process. Modern equivalents crop up often in the corporate world as employees engage in ethically questionable behavior to deliver what they’ve promised to leaders (or shareholders). Encouraging dependability in the process is just as important as the final product. Instilling a culture of consistency and dependability means the behavior will extend far beyond your own person-to-person interactions – and things will be done the right way, even when you’re not looking.

CAPABILITY: An employee who does exactly what you ask of them has proven that they’re capable of the task – whether or not the task was appropriately challenging to them or really all that helpful to the business. More important is finding someone who has current capability and potential for additional capability. This savvy means they’ll know to alert you when something is wrong. It also means that they’ll demonstrate creativity, inquisitiveness, and achieve real innovation that will move your company forward.

AUTONOMY: Your team shouldn’t be focused on doing exactly and only what you say. A loyal employee looks to their leader for all the answers. An autonomous employee instead finds ways to find the answers, then think critically and independently, synthesizing the information as they keep a leader up to date on progress and engage in collaborative feedback. 

An added benefit for employees and leaders who don’t focus solely on loyalty: avoiding the ‘enemy’ trap. When loyalty is paramount, everything becomes an attack on it. Our customers become the enemy for wanting lower pricing, our methods become gospel, our competition and their ideas become symbols of ‘the wrong way’ — in short, we cease to learn, to remain curious and to improve. 

This summer, throw your obsession with loyalty out the window. Focus instead on what actions really move the needle, not those that just appear to appeal.