When Subordinates Betray their Leaders

By | October 11, 2018

[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.


  1. 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.
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

24 thoughts on “When Subordinates Betray their Leaders

  1. Kenny Foster

    I also see the betrayal of leaders in universities across the nation. Whacko professors do what they want, when they want, and to who they want without any repercussions. Univ Presidents are reluctant to do anything including acting to punish professors who step out of line and involve themselves (and by extension the university) in unseemly behavior. Much of it encouraging or acting violently against those they disagree with.

    1. Lynn Pitts

      This one is a can of worms that should be exposed to the disinfectant of public exposure. Most colleges have become just money-making machines and the value of a degree has declined along with their loss of prestige and value.

  2. Willie Shrumburger

    The entire FBI needs to be gutted at the very top. Too many senior officials who think they are allowed to involve themselves in determining who gets elected. The scandal at the FBI is the biggest scandal in modern US history. A once great organization has been trashed by bad leadership like James Comey. Good thing he was fired.

  3. Roger Yellowmule

    Wow, we could surely find a bunch of examples when politicians are involved. That would be too easy. Politicians are often lacking in moral courage which means they will betray anyone that gets in their way of being re-elected. Too bad but they do deserve the derisive reputation; they earned it.

    1. Martin Shiell

      Spot on comment about Mueller’s investigation.

    2. Eddie Ray Anderson,

      Powerful statement. Special Counsel Robert Mueller should recognize what he’s done to America and it’s not good.

  4. Eric Coda

    Judas and his 30 pieces of silver reminds me of the Progressive Movement in the USA; they want to protest (against anything they feel threatened by) and want to get paid for it. Ha Ha.

    1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      It’s AntiFa (anti-fascists) who use fascist tactics of violence. They are just Nazi-brown shirt wannabes.

  5. Nick Lighthouse

    The first example I thought of was also Judas. But, sadly, the second example I thought of was our the US Congress betrays the American people by encouraging violence and pitting one group against another. Even Hillary Clinton is calling for no civil discussion.

    1. Ronny Fisher

      Hillary is a POS. No surprise that she calls for violence against those she disagrees with. She has had the greatest disappointment in not getting her “anointed” position as President of the US. Thank God she was defeated in the last election.

    2. José Luis Rodriguez

      Naughty Hillary is at it again. A woman once scorned ….

  6. Max Foster

    Yey, and thanks to Terri for the recommendation. We all appreciate Gen Satterfield taking suggestions on future articles and giving us some great guest writers like Sadako Red, Army Vet, and Mr. Kennedy III.

  7. Danny Burkholder

    Thanks, Gen. Satterfield for another excellent article on a current topic of leadership in a modern era. Well done!

  8. Dennis Mathes

    A lot of talk about FBI senior official Rosenstein and how he said he would “wiretap” the US President so he could be impeached. And Pres Trump is keeping this guy in the FBI? I guess Trump believes in keeping his enemies close.

  9. Army Captain

    Interesting article. Thanks for focusing on subordinates who betray their leaders. People today like ex FBI director James Comey and a myriad of senior FBI officials who became complacent under Pres Obama. Lesson for leaders in all orgs … don’t get complacent.

    1. Jerry C. Jones

      Yes, good one Army Captain. Thanks also for your service.

  10. Darryl Sitterly

    Great article and thanks for pointing out the betrayal of our troops by the US congress.

    1. Tony B. Custer

      Thanks Darryl for pointing out this terrible betrayal. And it was the Democrats. I’ll never forget and never vote for a Democrat for the rest of my life.

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