[October 11, 2018] In a popular 2007 drawing by cartoonist Michael P. Ramirez, a soldier stands ready for combat but with a knife in his back; bloodied with the words “Congress” written in the blood. This political cartoon became popular among troops sent to Iraq. It symbolized their anger at the U.S. Congress because their elected representatives were about to betray them by withdrawing funding for the war while they were in combat.
The idea of betrayal is old as humans have been on this Earth. It is captured in the widely-divergent writings of Sun Tzu, Emmanuel Kant, Plato, and many more that studied and wrote about the wisdom of leadership and the many subjects that we consider relevant and important.1
For the purposes of this article, I will narrow the concept of betrayal down to when subordinates betray their leaders. By doing so it is easier to highlight the presumptive contract and trust that is destroyed when one human betrays another.
The most famous betrayal was when Judas betrayed Jesus to the Romans; Judas Iscariot being one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples. Another is when American military general Benedict Arnold betrayed the trust that was given to him by George Washington to defend the fortifications at West Point, New York. Both names, today, remain closely associated with betrayal. Others who betrayed their leaders, such as Ephialtes and Brutus, can be found here.
People place trust in their leaders. This is why great leadership is defined by many critical skills and attributes; most important among them is the idea of trust. Betrayal is the breaking of the bonds of trust and will lead to a myriad of complex, negative behaviors. Anger and frustration are most common and explains the visceral reaction to betrayal when it occurs.
Leader betrayal occurs when subordinates violate their core values (loyalty, respect, honor, etc.) to gain a temporary sense of empowerment over their leader or over others. Like Judas who received 30 pieces of silver for his betrayal, the long-term price paid by the subordinate most assuredly outweighs any gain they may have received.
Leaders will never be able to completely insulate themselves from a subordinate who would betray the trust vested in them. Nor should leaders worry about it. When leaders avoid involvement in illegal, immoral, or unethical behavior, any betrayal can only be an inconsequential event.
Thanks to Terri, a regular reader, for recommending this topic.
- To define the concept “betray” is not an easy task. What is noteworthy, however, is the fact that philosophers recognize that clarity in the concept of betrayal is lacking. The moral concepts are confusing, overly broad, and should be untangled from the emotions wrought through the idea of betrayal.