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Champions ATA Martial Arts

Loyalty: The Unspoken Bond in Relationships

Posted: July 24, 2017


There are some principles of leadership that can be taught, others can be caught, and then there is loyalty.  I truly believe that loyalty is one of the core aspects of leadership that reflects the inner character of the leader.  We have all experienced disloyalty, and chances are at times we have all been disloyal.  Loyalty is essential in leadership; in fact when I am hiring staff the most important character trait that I look for is loyalty.  We are going to look at why loyalty is critical, how loyalty is shown, the essentials in becoming a loyal leader, and the consequences of disloyalty. 

Loyalty is critical:       Anyone who has ever had to lead people or anyone who has ever been led by a person has had to deal with loyalty issues.  When it comes to moving people to accomplish a vision the key ingredient is having a loyal leader, and a loyal team to follow that leader.  Loyalty understands that we do it together, if we win we share the victory, if we lose, we all lose together.  Radical alignment is the result of total and complete loyalty on any team, and Radical alignment is the key to getting everyone on the same page, pulling on the same rope together.  A house divided cannot stand.  I have adopted the phrase ‘doing together what we could never do alone,’ as a staple in my life and leadership. 

Loyalty goes both ways, from the leader to the team and from the team to the leader.  You must have both aspects of loyalty working for anything big to ever get accomplished.  Let’s start with loyalty from the leader to the team.  Loyalty that runs downhill creates a more unified team than any other characteristic that an organization can implement.   Nobody wants to follow a leader who doesn’t have his or her back.  I believe a loyal leader can be seen by the following three signs in their life and leadership.

  • A loyal leader doesn’t care who gets the credit:It is amazing how much a person can get accomplished when they don’t care who gets the glory for it.A loyal leader understands that for him to win, his team must win.The team always reflects the leadership of the person leading that team.When loyalty is in place from the top down the teammates know that the leader will do whatever he or she can to set them up for success.A loyal leader jealously protects the morale of those that he leads, and nothing destroys team morale more than a leader who tries to broker glory for his own good.One of the key traits in a loyal leader is a person who always defers credit to those that he leads.On the other hand, there is nothing that builds morale and loyalty from a team more than when they receive credit for accomplishments that they feel they were only a part of the success of.Building those up that you lead is a great step to creating a loyal and healthy team.A disloyal leader works his team like plow horses, then stands up at the end and receives all the accolades and flowers for him or herself. A loyal leader understands that without his or her team, he wouldn’t be getting recognized in the first place.A loyal leader does everything in his or her power to set his team up for success then praises them when success does show up.
  • A loyal leader NEVER criticizes his or her team in front of other people.When it comes to the basics of leadership and loyalty this is a no brainer.There is no greater way to undo years of loyalty to a team member or team members than when you “come down” on them in front of other teammates or people.When this happens it creates fear in the life of everyone you lead. The thought process that evolves out of this is “if he or she does that to them, then it is only a matter of time that he or she will do it to me.”A loyal leader understands that everyone walks around with an invisible sign that says “make me feel important.”When a leader points out the faults in a teammate in front of others it makes everyone start working out of fear, not working to accomplish a goal or vision.
  • A loyal leader always sends complaints up.In every organization there is a leadership structure.A loyal leader always sends his complaints up, never down or lateral.For example if I have five people that work for me, three that work equal with me, and two people that work above me in the organization chart, my complaints about my leader or the organization should always go up.For a person to complain about his or her superior to those equal to or under him virtually gives them permission to do the same about him.When there is an issue with your superior, higher rank, or the organization, your complaints should always go to them.When a leader complains down to his or her subordinates it creates an unhealthy environment of disloyalty.


How loyalty is shown:   I am always surprised by how many people say that loyalty is a key in their life, but when it comes to living it their lifestyle and actions speak a different language.  Loyalty goes so far beyond lip service and very rarely is a natural thought to most leaders.  It must be pursued with great intentionality and effort.  In the organization that I lead, we have developed a simple guide to help ensure that we are all on the same page when defining loyalty.  I learned a long time ago that everything is how you define it, so the first step to building loyalty in and on your team is to be clear with how it is defined, or how you show it.  For my staff and me, we live and die off of what we call our leadership covenant, which at the core is all about loyalty.  Our leadership covenant has these simple points in it.

Leadership Covenant Principle #1:  I will never say nor receive anything negative about another person on my team.  I know this sounds extreme, but there is a method and some reasoning behind this statement.  I know as well as you do that this is virtually impossible to do when you work with people, but the statement refers more to the heart of the issue than what is actually said.  Complaining about team members must not be tolerated, and as a leader it is important to remember that those who complain to you will complain about you.  It is a great way to protect yourself as a leader, and the health of your team, when everyone knows that you do not listen to gossip or slander of other teammates. 

The reality is that anyone in leadership will have to listen to and deal with negative comments about everyone in the organization.  How you handle these comments is what will communicate to your team whether or not you are committed to being a loyal leader who leads a loyal team.  I have learned that there are a few ways to still have loyalty as a foundation when this type of situation arrives.  First of all when a person brings a complaint to you about someone else your first response back to them should be “have you talked to them about this?”  If the answer is no, then send them away to first bring up their issue with the person they are talking about.  Chances are they will either drop the subject (which means it wasn’t really an issue to begin with), or they will go talk to that person and the two of them will work it out on their own.  If the person is unwilling to talk to them then your response is “before I hear what you have to say, let’s get them on the phone or in the room with us to have this conversation.” If they are still unwilling to do this, then it gives you as the leader a great opportunity to give them a lesson on loyalty.  This type of response communicates so many things to your team.  They realize that you will not listen to negative comments about them from others, shuts down the gossip train, and lets everyone know that you are an objective leader who believes the best about the team that you lead.

Leadership Covenant Principle #2:  We don’t always have to agree on everything, but we must remain loyal.  Disloyalty almost always is birthed from disagreement.  In a perfect world, if we could just implement ideas and plans that everyone would agree on then loyalty would not be an issue.  You and I both know as a leader that this is impossible, when you are leading there are those around who will always second guess and disagree with what you are doing and saying.  When it comes to this issue we have three simple statements that I believe sums everything up really well.  Those statements are as follows:

  1. On the major issues there must be total agreement.   When it comes to our vision, mission, and strategy as an organization there must be total agreement from everyone on the team.  If a person isn’t sold on what the organization is, and what they are committed to doing, then they don’t belong on the team.  One of the best things a leader can do to keep oneself surrounded by loyalty is to remove those team members who do not believe in the organization at the core of who or what it is.   This level of loyalty can not be taught, it must be caught; if they don’t catch it then you need to get rid of them. 
  2. On minor issues there must be understanding.  The major issues deal with who we are as an organization; the minor issues are the tactical ones: how we accomplish our vision and mission.  It is okay for a person to disagree with some of the methods used for accomplishing the vision, as long as they are sold on the vision.  In this disagreement however, there must be complete understanding.  You may have a team member who loves the organization, you as a leader, and is sold on the cause.  In the day to day grind of getting things done there will always be decisions made that they may not totally agree with, that’s fine as long as it is done in a spirit of understanding.  Often times I find myself doing tasks and implementing strategies that I probably wouldn’t do if I were in charge. As long as I don’t let it go dark, and I understand that we are still accomplishing the vision and mission, I am good with it.  It is just a tactical issue and I understand that each person leads in a different way, therefore I’m good with it.

Leadership Covenant Principle #3:  In all things there must be unity.  There is a way for unity in every situation, and in all things that way must be discovered.  Loyalty, like any other good idea, is never developed but always discovered.  If your team commits to this principle then they are committing to loyalty at all times.  It may be one of your greatest leadership challenges, leading through moments to help you and your team discover how unity can be maintained in different situations.  A tip that I have learned is, almost all the time, people really don’t have to have their way they just want to be heard.  Let them speak about what is on their mind in appropriate ways then move on. 

I normally try not to guarantee anything, but when it comes to loyalty I will almost guarantee you that if you implement the above three points of our leadership covenant in your life and team, loyalty will happen.   It is a tough start, but after a little while you will start to see the benefits of bringing great clarity to this area of your leadership.

Essentials in becoming a loyal leader:  There is not a single book out there that you can read that will turn you into a loyal leader; it just doesn’t work that way.  Loyalty is not a skill to learn, but rather a character trait to be developed.  We all have our times of weakness when loyalty escapes us, but our goal should be to make those times further and further apart.  There are a few things that I watch really closely in my life to make sure that I always continue on the path to becoming a loyal leader.

  3. Act, don’t react:Yes there is a difference.When you are faced with a decision you must make, take your time and respond with action, not reaction.Loyalty will develop itself when you learn not to react to the person talking to you, but rather take action to act on the situation.Learn the difference between problems you have to solve and tensions you have to manage.There will always be problems that you can solve in your team, and there will always be tensions that don’t need to be solved, just managed.Tension is good, and it must exist to get things done.You will learn a lot about loyalty when you as a leader start realizing the difference between the two.No, you don’t have to solve everything.Relax.

Consequences of disloyalty:   To write on the benefits of loyalty would take days, but we can sum up the consequences of disloyalty pretty quickly, they really don’t need much explanation.  It is important to know that disloyalty on your team carries with it some consequences that will cripple your organization.  I have listed a few of the top consequences that you can look at from one or two viewpoints.  You can look at these to encourage you to practice loyalty and maintain it on your team, or you can look for these as symptoms in your organization to let you know if you need to take immediate action when it comes to loyalty.

Four consequences of disloyalty:

  1. People looking for glory rather than accomplishment.This is easily seen on many professional sports teams.Individual players working hard to build their own statistics even if it means the rest of the team suffer.When you are leading in an environment where loyalty doesn’t exist then you will find people looking out for themselves, not the team.
  2. Your team will work for you, not with you.I have never wanted to lead a team I had to push; I want to lead a team that is with me.You will waste way too much energy pushing a team to get them to do what you want, loyalty gets them with you and you all work together.Remember, people follow the leader before they do the vision, if they aren’t with you, then chances are they aren’t with the vision.You reflect the vision of your organization so don’t give it a bad name.
  3. Team turnover is high.If disloyalty is permeating your team, you will find that way too often you have to train new people to replace the ones that have just left.It doesn’t take long for people to figure out that they are working for someone who doesn’t have their back.When this happens they begin to look other places, even at other career choices.When you see your team having a high turnover rate, step back and work on being a loyal leader.
  4. Burn out, from you and your team.We all get tired of our work and what we do, but that is different that burn out.Burn out is emotional death, and every part of leadership deals with emotion at some level.You will not want to work with people that are not with you.It is fine to get tired, but don’t get burnt out, and it is hard to get burnt out when you are surrounded by a team that has your back.They will see it coming and jump in to make a difference and save the day.

Loyalty is huge; it really does make all the difference in the world when you are leading your team.  Stay focused on the vision but remember you cannot do it alone.  You need your team, and they need you.  

ATA has a very military like structure of etiquette and rank.  Of course, this is due to the fact that Eternal Grand Master Lee and Grand Master Soon Ho Lee both were active in the Korean military.  In the military, Loyalty and structure is most important.  If it is not followed, people die.  Eternal Grand Master knew this to be true when developing a great organization.  He used that model for the ATA and it has only grown stronger for over 40 years.  Eternal Grand Master Lee was the best for showing his loyalty to his juniors and giving them the credit for their involvement in the development of the ATA program.  He set up departments of training that his highest ranking instructors were to lead so the ATA would be a well rounded martial arts organization and he never stepped in to take the credit. 

The person who has lived this example the most in the ATA, and has worked probably closer with Eternal Grand Master Lee than anyone else, is Mr. Jim Wolff.  He is the CEO of our great organization and most people don’t even know who he is.  Grand Master Lee and the Master’s Council turn to him for the finalizing of new programs and training.  ATA’s business structure is run and overseen by him.  During Eternal Grand Master Lee’s passing, he turned to Mr. Wolff to be the one to watch out and take care of his children and wife after his passing. However, Mr. Wolff has never taken a title of Mastership or a rank that supersedes the Master’s Council. He stays behind the scenes and makes sure Grand Master Soon Ho Lee and the Master’s Council as well as leaders of the ATA gets the credit.  This man has lived and proven what true loyalty is. 

The thing that has impressed me the most about the ATA is the loyalty the Master’s Council has for each other and Eternal Grand Master Lee.  The five Lee brothers represent true loyalty.  I have seen them demonstrate acts of loyalty for one another like I have never seen before.  I once witnessed Grand Master Soon Ho Lee show his loyalty and respect before he was Grand Master for Eternal Grand Master Lee.  It was during a workout at an instructor camp during a lunch break when Grand Master Soon Ho Lee sat next to Eternal Grand Master Lee during a lunch break.  Although we were on break and everyone was to be more relaxed and enjoy their lunch, Grand Master Soon Ho Lee would not relax the way he was so that he continued to represent his loyalty for Eternal Grand Master Lee.  As they walked through the line to get their food he would make sure that Eternal Grand Master did not to carry his own food.  While they sat, he made sure that all students stopped and bowed while passing Eternal Grand Master.  He would get up to fill Eternal Grand Master’s drink.  When finishing the meal, he took the plate from Eternal Grand Master and put it away.  It’s not that he did these acts that only impressed me, but what impressed me more is that Grand Master Soon Ho Lee was the second highest rank in the ATA and could have asked one of the other junior instructors to do these things for him.  However he didn’t.  He knew that in order for all the other instructors and leaders to learn what true loyalty is he had to first demonstrate it. 

ATA strives to continually communicate with the organization about the training systems involved in teaching Songahm Taekwondo.  With the number of different parts to our martial arts system, ATA has set up different departments and set a specific leader and team to lead that specialize in these areas of training.  This has helped with the communication of the organization.  With so many different methods of teaching, and personalities of instructors who teach these systems worldwide, it is not uncommon for the material to have minor differences.  The ATA knows that by bringing its instructors together over and over again for training sessions and events such as tournaments, it allows a chance for them to be able to communicate their concerns and differences on how the material is taught and how it is accepted by the organization to the seniors of the organization.  The instructors and students must stay loyal to the tradition of Songahm and understand, due to different methods and personalities that some things will be taught with minor differences and instructors don’t need to be judged or compared to one another due to these differences.  

As mentioned before, the ATA is structured like the military.  The chain of command allows our instructors and leaders to deal with conflicts in a professional way.  Instructors need to understand they must use this chain of command to their advantage so they can act and not react during conflict.  They need to allow their seniors, who have most likely been faced with the same conflicts at one time or another, to help resolve the conflict.  This also takes all the immediate attention off the instructor who has to deal with the conflict.  The students need not take advantage of this chain of command and go behind their instructor’s back.  They need to remain loyal, whether they agree or disagree, and deal with the person directly.

I’m sure being the largest martial arts organization in the world, the ATA has dealt with disloyalty on many occasions to the point where masters have left and started their own Taekwondo organizations.  However, you may briefly hear about these stories but the leaders of the ATA know not to dwell on these issues but rather put that focus and energy into the true vision of Eternal Grand Master Lee.  The ones that have tried to seek the glory instead of the accomplishments of the ATA eventually will find themselves stranded and eventually quit because of their own frustration.  The ATA does plenty to recognize their leaders for their work and accomplishments and have a sound group of leaders that have now led this organization for over 40 years and will continue with or without you. 

Our organization is filled with leaders that work together to accomplish the same vision in creating leaders one black belt at a time and this shows to be true when our leaders come together at the major events such as World Championships and sacrifice the expenses and time to work together as a family of Songahm.  At these events it is easy to recognize that we are there to work with the ATA and not for the ATA.  This is why the ATA is like one big family and creates the relationships and loyalty that makes the ATA magical.

I once heard Chief Master Clark mention that he has never had to fire an employee because if they don’t hold true to his and ATA’s vision they will eventually find their own way out and there are always plenty of instructors waiting to fill that position.  He sets a work environment that doesn’t allow for disloyalty and if there is, it is immediately taken care of because of the strong loyalty of all those that do hold true to the vision of the ATA.  I believe this is the same model loyalty that has been set forth from Eternal Grand Master Lee and is definitely represented by Grand Master Soon Ho Lee and the Master’s Council. 

Too often in the ATA, status and rank becomes a virus in ATA schools.  I see it time after time that when an instructor becomes a school owner they lose their loyalty for the ones who got them to where they are.  I know it’s truly the hard work and commitment of ones self to get themselves where they want to go but if it weren’t for the opportunities that were created by the ones before them there would have never been an opportunity.  I have dedicated my life to this career of teaching martial arts and changing lives and this organization and have proven that by the hours put in.  However, I will always give the credit to our founders of the ATA for creating this organization and the instructors and school owners that I have worked for that supplied the opportunities of the journey that got me to where I am.  I’m not saying I’ve always agreed with my instructors that I have worked for and I would never publicly voice my concerns I have with them to any other except to them directly.  If I do then I just create gossip which is the key ingredient to loyalty failing.

          I have known my instructor, Master Brandon, for almost 20 years and have become very close friends with him and his family.  I have never referred to him by his first name and always treat him with the same respect as if we were in the studio.  It’s these small acts of respect that help create loyalty or can also create disloyalty.  I publicly give him the credit for whatever I have become for even things he has not taught me.  If it wasn’t for his leadership and the opportunities he and his wife have made available to me then nothing I have achieved in Taekwondo would be possible.  If they ask me for help in any area I will stop and do my best, under any circumstances and whether I agree with it or not, to make it possible.  If people have a concern with them that have worked with them or trained with them, whether they are right or wrong, I will go to bat for Master and Mrs. Brandon before throwing them under the bus. 

          I am not the best, but have to continually improve at showing my wife the loyalty she deserves, for not only being my wife but also my business partner.  I am the king of making mistakes and I can always rest assured she has got my back.  I have however, publicly criticized her for small mistakes.  In her humble, loving character she reminds me what I have done and still never fails to prove the correct acts of loyalty.  It is by her example that our team and me follow her example of loyalty. 

          A position I hold where I am most tested on this part of loyalty is being Regional Chief of Tournaments.  This position is not only about leading great tournaments and making sure these events occur professionally and efficiently for all involved, but it is also about continually dealing with and managing conflict.  The most challenging part of this is to stay loyal to the ATA, judges, instructors, and school owners all at the same time.  Most conflict that is dealt with being RCT is not mistakes that happen from judges at the tournament but differences of opinions.  The essentials of communication, listening, and acting and not reacting are used extensively when running these events.  I am certainly not perfect about always following but certainly do my best.  I am constantly aware that I am to model these essentials of loyalty for my juniors and tournament staff members to follow. 

I once heard a saying, “99% loyalty is 100% disloyalty.”  I believe this to be true in all areas of our life when it comes to loyalty.  The example I like to use is with marriage.  If a husband wants to be with his wife 99 days out of 100 and only cheat on her the one time it is still completely unacceptable.  This analogy can be related to the workforce as well.  This is why I am adamant with my team that the smallest act of disloyalty is unacceptable and will get you fired quicker that anything else.  Our team holds so strong to the leadership covenant that disloyalty never last and is quickly dealt with and quickly moved past so their energy and focus stays in the right direction.