Does the Golden Rule Apply to Leaders?

by  Chuck Hebert  |  Leadership Development

Growing up most of my life, I’ve always been told to respect and follow the Golden Rule.  Of course, when I refer to the Golden Rule, I mean the idea of treating others in the same way you’d like others to treat you.  On the surface, this has always seemed like a noble and well intended rule.

The Case against the Golden Rule

It wasn’t until I was managing my first team, I realized the Golden Rule is not always so golden.  In one case, it backfired completely.  I had an “A” player employee who had gone above and beyond to take care of a customer.  There had been numerous examples of this person providing top-notch customer service.  In this most recent example, the customer had taken the time to write a nice note to me about the service they’d received from this person.  As a manager, I wanted to recognize their efforts.

For me, I love to get recognition in front of groups of people.  It gives me a boost of energy to work hard and get recognized publicly.  So, in following the Golden Rule, I decided I would take time at the next staff meeting to recognize this individual and read the letter I had received from this customer.  It was a complimentary letter and in no way discounted any one else’s work.  So, I didn’t see any harm in my actions.

Much to my dismay, this star performer came to me after the meeting and had shared with me their embarrassment by my effort to recognize them.  They now felt separated from the rest of the team.  How could this be?  After some discussion, I came to realize this person was a very private person.  And while, he acknowledged my intent, he would have preferred if I’d just recognized his effort privately.  That was the “juice” that gave him energy.

In this case, me treating him in a way I would have appreciated, missed the mark.  Even worse – they felt worse off by my actions.  The Golden Rule let me down.

The “New” Golden Rule

The truth is people are different.  They have different likes, dislikes, goals, not to mention motivators.  It was from this lesson, I discovered a new Golden Rule… Treat others as they would like to be treated.

Looking back, if I had followed this rule, I would have known this employee as a private person, and the fact they like to be recognized privately.  In doing so, they would have received the acknowledgement in they way that was energizing to them!

The more I thought about this rule, it hit me.  It applies to everyone – from the people you work with, all the way down to the people you live with.

The “New” Rule is Not for The Faint of Heart

Every time I follow this new paradigm of thinking, I’ve found the results more positive and rewarding.  At the same time, I realize this “new” Golden Rule requires extra effort.

In order to follow this way of thinking, you need to really know the other person and how they want to be treated and recognized.  You need to know what makes them tick, then call on that knowledge when engaging with them.

I admit, this is not an always easy task. Not everyone is good at it.  There is no short-cut here.  It requires effort and caring.  However, one that I believe is well worth it.  Not to mention it is through application of this “new” Golden Rule that can endear people to your leadership.

My challenge… take the time to get to know those you lead.  Understand what motivates them and how they like to be rewarded and recognized.  When the opportunity strikes – treat them the way they would like to be treated.  Then… just step back and observe.

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What People Are Saying

Mark Sturgell CBC  |  28 Apr 2011  |  Reply


You’ve touched on something that I discuss with people all the time, and given it excellent treatment. Great article. Sometimes called the Platinum Rule, that of which you speak is actually the Golden Rule properly applied, perhaps?

Golden Rule: Do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I want to be treated like I want to be treated. So if I treat others like I want to be treated, I will treat them the way they want to be treated.

Indeed, this is much more challenging (and rewarding) than just treating them with my preferences. I must come to know them (I love the line and its special meaning from the movie “Avatar” – “I see you.”). Author Kevin Hall (“Aspire”) would use the word Genshai to describe how we treat people.

In Christianity, the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31) should be taken in the context of the 2nd Great Commandment (Matthew 28-29, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”), but even that is often taken out of context and is mistake as the Great Commandment, which is ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”. Do the first and in doing the second you will indeed treat/love others as you treat/love yourself.

Chuck Hebert  |  28 Apr 2011  |  Reply


Thanks for the comment and the great perspective. I also appreciate the reference to the Avatar movie (“I see you.”) That is a great quote and has great meaning! Cheers!

Karah  |  13 Nov 2011  | 

If I comumcniated I could thank you enough for this, I’d be lying.

Susie Amundson  |  28 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Hi Chuck.

Thanks for sharing your lessons and insights of the Golden Rule at work. Treating others as one would be treated means something perhaps different to me. Each human being desires respect, unconditional positive regard, and kindness. (It’s pretty universal in all wisdom traditions.)

When we enact this principle in the workplace, we certainly see our colleagues’ individuation, preferences, nature, and temperament. And then, our daily interactions in workplace activities are truly more in line with our colleagues’ wholeness.

Leadership truly is not for the faint of heart! Each of us has so many lessons to learn.

Chuck Hebert  |  28 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Susie, Thanks for sharing your thoughts – well said! Best to you!

Connie McKnight  |  28 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Chuck, That’s brilliant really. I’ve always tried to follow the golden rule, but I never really thought about it in the light your story showed. You’re absolutely right. If a person is private, they would hate to be recognized. By getting to know them and treating them in the manner they would like to be treated, they would feel respected and cared for. I’m sure they’d end up a more loyal employee.

This makes so much sense, I think I’m going to follow your rule and incorporate into my teachings. Thank you.


Chuck Hebert  |  28 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Connie, Glad you found this nugget of information valuable. Best of luck implementing this new way of thinking! Cheers!

Monica Diaz  |  28 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Nice article! I like to say that treating people in the organization fairly has to do with treating them as unique individuals. Getting to know them, understanding their needs, contributions and requirements is vital to good leadership.

Will Lukang  |  29 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Great post! I think when recognizing our employee, it is best to treat them like snowflakes. Each one is different therefore you need to find a way how that person wants to be recognized.

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