Someone I know reached out to me recently asking if we might discuss the topic of “loyalty.” A variety of events and experiences in this person’s life had made him wonder: what is loyalty? Why do some people seem to exhibit it fiercely and others not at all? It got me thinking.

The more I think about it, the more complicated “loyalty” becomes.

On the one hand loyalty is clearly a positive trait. It’s essential for meaningful relationships in all areas of our lives. Marriage, parenthood, family of origin, work colleagues, friends– there’s not an area where loyalty isn’t critical. Loyalty is related to other “things” like trust, commitment, obligation, persistence, devotion and so on.

On the other hand loyalty has a shadow side. Consider blind loyalty. There’s a path that starts with loyalty and leads (albeit not inevitably) to fanaticism, fundamentalism, extremism, chauvinism, jingoism, imperialism, tribalism, and other forms of unthinking commitment to whatever it is that we are loyal.

I plan to think more deeply about the topic of loyalty to better understand what I once thought was a pretty straightforward concept.