The Two-Way Street of Leadership and Respect

Respect. It’s such a simple word that carries so much power. It commands: “Respect commands itself and it can neither be given nor withheld when it is due.” (Eldridge Cleaver). It empowers: “We confide in our strength, without boasting of it; we respect that of others, without fearing it.” (Thomas Jefferson) It elevates: “We must build a new world, a far better world - one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” (Harry S. Truman) It validates: “Probably no greater honor can come to any man than the respect of his colleagues” (Cary Grant). And yet, where has respect gone today, particularly when it comes to those in or seeking positions of leadership?

To this question, let me direct you to some other worthy quotes: “Men are respectable only as they respect” (Ralph Waldo Emerson); “Respect yourself if you would have others respect you” (Baltasar Gracián); and, “If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are” (John W. Gardner). Isn’t this last quote the whole point of leadership?

Last month I explored a topic – the overuse of apologizing – in my “Shame On Our Apology Economy” post which I feel is related to the topic of respect and leadership. Regardless of someone’s “leadership” position, I find it hard to respect them if their rhetoric is either a series of apologies or if they’re apologizing for something that’s really, truly egregious.

Valued More Than Respect?

When it comes to respect, some people feel that it must be earned while others feel it should be a given, an attribute to be lost based on behavior and attitude. I suppose I fall into the latter camp:  I try to give people – all people – the benefit of the doubt and treat them as if they’re deserving and worthy of my respect. I’m in no way perfect, but I do try to adhere to a Golden Rule philosophy. Or, to invoke another relevant quote, “Respect for ourselves guides our morals; respect for others guides our manners” (Laurence Sterne).

Many of today’s leaders or heir apparent leaders seem to have lost their way, though, when it comes to respect. Whereas respect used to be a pinnacle, a cornerstone of importance, now it’s only lip service. What’s more valued? Let’s create a shortlist:

  • Power
  • Money
  • Fear
  • Appearance
  • Ego

Perhaps any or some these appeal to the individual cultivating them, but what do they foster in the individuals they seek to lead? Perhaps the loyalty and commitment of a few with similar value sets, but most of these drivers backfire eventually, especially if followers benefit from little to none of the same. Nor can a “leader” maintain control or sustain an entity if those they’re leading can find what they require elsewhere, particularly at a place with a leader who truly respects them and their contributions. Pity the leader who tries to govern a body of people who disrespect him or her.

Human beings must feel self-respect for themselves, too. It’s just part of the human condition. People who do not feel self-respect cannot sustain that situation in perpetuity. They will feel the need to flee, avoid, or hide the more they feel dismissed for their own self-worth. People who “check out,” even if they don’t physically flee, are as minimally productive as possible. And how is a “leader” truly leading when he or she engenders little from the organization’s people than the very minimum they can give?

In other words, when it comes to leadership, respect really is a two-way street. To be an effective leader, you need to give respect to be respected, and from my vantage point, the leader should set the example every single day.

When it comes to enabling change, respect is an important topic. Here on Lead Change Group, others have also written about the topic of respect and leadership. Please read more here.