Balancing Loyalty and Integrity

George Tenet’s appearance on 60 Minutes marks the latest in a long series of former officials from the Bush administration who have belatedly opted for integrity over loyalty. The former Director of the CIA has now revealed that his often quoted remark (i.e. that the case for WMD in Iraq was a “slam dunk”) was taken out of context.

So where was this guy in 2002 and 2003 during the run-up to the war? Why is he coming clean now in 2007?

A cynical answer is that loyalty served him well in 2002/2003; it enabled him to keep his job (for a while anyway); but “integrity” (coming forward with the gritty truth about the distortions perpetrated by Dick Cheney et al.) will now help him sell more books.

Without getting into a long diatribe about the credibility of these latest accusations, I believe that Tenet’s behavior (i.e. his belated decision to come clean) is instructive for lawyers and their careers. In short, I believe that when confronted with a choice between loyalty and integrity, that integrity should trump. By this measure, George Tenet failed his ultimate boss, the American people.

In the workplace, there is often a tension between doing what you think is right and doing what your clients want you to do. This tension also exists between partners in law firms and associates who receive direction from these partners. Your sense of what is right and wrong may not be entirely consistent with that of your clients or superiors.

The choices, of course, are not always so easy and sometimes there is a clear conflict between your own sense of loyalty and your feelings that doing something for a client conflicts with your values. Sometimes, standing up for integrity means risking getting fired from a job that you need to support your family.

If you take the time to set your own moral compass, however, you will know when it is time to put loyalty aside. You will know what lines you will not cross.

For some attorneys, this may mean refusing to represent clients in certain industries (e.g. the tobacco industry or defense contractors.) For others, it may mean taking the extreme step of reporting a lawyer to the Board of Bar Overseers when someone in your firm is acting in a highly unethical manner.

Loyalty is not an inherently bad quality. A law firm with loyal associates and support staff will provide superior client service. What I am talking about is unbridled loyalty.

Four years ago, George Tenet made the decision not to refute false statements he heard coming from various members of the Bush administration. He chose to be loyal to the Commander in Chief rather than stick his neck out and undermine the case that the President was making for going to war. Judging by his emotional state on 60 Minutes, it doesn’t sound like that decision is sitting well with him now. Think about that.

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