Great Leaders Choose Respect
In last month’s article, we addressed how great leaders invest in trust. An important part of leading people is earning their trust. Without their trust, it’s highly unlikely that we are positioned to positively influence the lives of people around us in any meaningful way.
There are plenty of leadership qualities that employees say cause them to trust their supervisor or other leaders. We gain that trust through consistent behavior that is seen as trustworthy.
Today I want to focus in on one trustworthy behavior that seems particularly pertinent in this season: Respect. It’s commonly understood that lasting respect must be earned. We earn the respect of those we lead the same ways we earn their trust. But what I want to address is the necessity for leaders to GIVE respect to those around them. Let me ask you a question. How likely is it for you to trust someone who you don’t believe respects you? I think the answer is obvious.
If treating others with respect is key to earning their trust, then the opposite is also true of treating others with disrespect. Synonyms for disrespect are CONTEMPT or DISDAIN. The Oxford dictionary defines contempt as “the feeling that a person or thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.” The definition of disdain is almost identical.
How do you know whether someone respects you or not? You know by the way they treat you. What are the ways we can treat others with contempt or disdain? Here are a few. Some are blatant, some are more subtle.
The intent here is to discredit someone, their opinions, or their work. We sometimes do this when we feel threatened by someone, or by what they bring into the open. We fear that the exposure will damage our own dignity, reputation, or self-worth. We want to discredit the person representing that threat.
Some disrespectful behaviors are more subtle.
Is it too obvious to say that when we engage in disrespectful behavior toward others, we make it impossible for them to trust us? I wish it was. But repeatedly we see leaders who seem to think publicly disrespecting others is appropriate, somehow thinking they are being influential. Do they honestly think people will trust their leadership when it is sabotaged by blatant contempt for others?
I can’t say this strongly enough: When we choose to treat someone with disrespect, we break not only their trust, but the trust of those who witness it, and ultimately, we forfeit our ability to lead them.
Is this to say that we must agree with everything others say and believe to earn their trust? What if we honestly have a hard time respecting the behaviors or ideas expressed by someone? Are we supposed to pretend to respect those behaviors or values when we don’t?
Let me try to answer that question with another question. Is it possible for a parent to love a child deeply even when they fundamentally disagree with the child’s behavior or beliefs? Yes, of course it is. It may feel heart breaking sometimes, and it may require a great deal of intentionality to treat the child with love, but we do it. The relationship is important to us, and so we develop the maturity to practice loving unconditionally.
Similarly, if we have any hope for being a positive influence in the life of a person who we disagree with, we must choose to treat the person with dignity and respect, even when we strongly disagree with them, or even feel threatened by their influence.
To do this we must separate the human dignity of the person from our perceptions of their belief or behavior. Only then can we address their threatening words or behavior while preserving the relationship built on trust.
Here are some ideas that can help us to treat others with dignity and respect, even when they act in ways that cause us to feel disrespectful.
1. In the end it’s better to win people than arguments. I want people to remember me as good more than I want them to remember that I was right. I can’t always know that I’m right. I’ve discovered that I was wrong many times. But I can control how I treat others.
2. When I see a person’s bad behavior or hear their disagreeable idea, I’m only seeing a snapshot in time of this person’s life, not the full narrative. I have not walked in this person’s shoes, so I certainly don’t have the full context to judge this person.
3. This person with whom I disagree is a work in progress, just like I am. They make mistakes and live with regrets, just like I do. We are probably more alike than I’m comfortable admitting. Thankfully, I have people in my life who choose to love me despite those mistakes, and those are the real influencers in my life.
When I was a young Air Force officer, I heard a story that affected me deeply. I don’t even know if it’s a true story, but it’s been helpful for me, so I’d like to share it.
As the story goes, a small auction house was auctioning antiques. The next item in line surprised the new apprentice auctioneer, who had stepped in for his supervisor. It was a broken violin. The finish was badly damaged, the arm had broken off and was only attached by the two remaining strings. The young apprentice shook his head, as he couldn’t imagine why the auction house would waste time on this item. The audience could hear the disdain in the auctioneer’s voice and could read it in his body language as he begrudgingly went through the motions of soliciting a bidder. There was not bidder, so he set the item aside.
During the next intermission, a client was looking over the broken violin and made a shocking discovery. Hidden down inside the body of the violin was a label that read “Antonius Stradiuarius.” The Italian Stradivari family made some of the most valuable violins in the world. Many of them are valued in the tens of millions of dollars today. The client showed this to the head auctioneer, who immediately brought the auction back to order. By the end of the night, the broken violin was sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite its poor condition.
Why had this violin been treated with such disdain before the intermission and with such reverence afterward? It was the recognition of the item’s maker that gave it such value.
In my small office where I worked when I heard this story were two chairs facing across from my desk and pushed against the wall next to my office door. On a blank piece of paper, I printed the word “Stradivarius,” and taped it to the wall so that it would be right above the person’s head when they sat down to talk with me. I let this be a reminder to me that, despite their present condition, the person sitting in that chair had tremendous value because to the Creator who masterfully made them. They were worthy of my highest regard. It also led to a lot of great conversations about how all of us in the squadron should treat each other, when people would ask me what the paper sign was for.
I wish I could say I have mastered the temptation to let contempt replace respect when my expectations of others feel violated, but I’d be lying. It’s a journey for all of us, I’d wager. How about you?
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Jay Pullins has been leading and developing leaders in a variety of settings for over 30 years. He has a diverse background as a leadership coach, military officer, an appointed state official, and executive leader of Alaska's largest church. Jay has trained over 1,400 leaders in the last five years, from Alaska to Southern California, in various fields from universities to military, construction, product distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications, churches, banks, casinos, and a railroad.