The level doesn’t matter. I’ve learned this lesson to be true in every leadership position I’ve held. Every one, from president of a fraternity and a leader in other student organizations, to a leader in the Knights of Columbus, to a leader in numerous church organizations, to a manager overseeing employees, to a father and husband:
Showing respect to those your serve is not charity. Showing respect is a duty.
With the spat with Sen. John Cornyn, his disrespect for a higher office, the Presidency of the United States, is serious issue, but the lack of respect toward a constituent, a person he serves, was more telling of this lesson of leadership. As a leader, sometimes you’re the first among equals—anyone in the room could switch out positions with you without the wheels coming off the axles. Sometimes, you are the leader because your skillset, your knowledge, your abilities are deemed better equipped for the time. Sometimes, you are the leader because you simply are smarter, stronger and have greater ability than anyone else.
In all cases, respect is the cornerstone of an effective leadership platform.
My two-year old provides the perfect test subject for this theory of leadership. I am her leader because I am smarter, stronger and all around better at all things. As her father when she is a toddler, in no area, in which I can defer to her decision. She can have her opinions, but feeding her nothing but cookies in a day, I can never allow.
On my bad days, coffee didn’t kick in (or heaven forbid, run out), both girls protested the peace of sleep all night, they don’t want anything healthy for breakfast, I have my moments of losing it, without true need:
“OLIVIA! STOP! DO THIS RIGHT NOW!”
Her reaction is almost universally the same.
“NOOO!” and breaks down crying. Or her yelling back while trying to hit me.
On most days, I can converse with her to get a resolution. “Olivia, I understand you don’t want oatmeal right now. It’s really good for you though. How about you have just a little bit?” or “Olivia, I hear you, but you have to eat. You can either eat oatmeal with blueberries, or oatmeal with raspberries. Which do you want?” or, what I’ve used as a life-saver when trying to get her sleep on a bad night. “Alright Olivia, do you want two blankets or one blanket?”
Almost always, she responds positively. She gets to make a choice and have some say in the process, which she enjoys, while I get to impose the way which I know is right for her. Win-win.
What struck me about Sen. Cornyn’s attitude toward me is that he sounded like me when I lose it. A quick, snappy response that only results in the other person getting upset while losing their support. Of course, my initial reaction was quick and snappy too, but part of being a leader is to be above when those you serve express themselves in less than ideal ways.
The at-home example: Sometimes, Olivia just gets upset and frustrated. I come over to her and she recoils and is just mad. If I responded to her the same way, I’d alienate her and not begin to understand—much less solve—her original issue.
If I calmly attempted to listen through the tears or the “I don’t like you!” or whatnot, I can usually discover the root of the issue—a toy that she can’t get to work or Catalina constantly trying to steal every thing Olivia has in her hands.
The same is true for all levels. When a member of the fraternity was upset, or a member of the church community was frustrated, in the vast majority of cases, a calm, listening leader is all that was needed. Through the conversation, I understood them better and they understood the position. Sometimes, they were able to convince me that the leadership needed to change, sometimes not. But in both cases, we walked away with a better understanding.
True listening can only happen when respect exists.