7 Ways a Boss Can Earn True Respect
The hot South Pacific evening wind blew across the runways and through the chain link fence into the complex of tents and Humvees.
“Sir, you will stay here until Sergeant Klein gets back!” a well-respected fellow Sergeant said sternly to the young Lieutenant (who outranked him by the way.)
I was a Sergeant in the Marine Corps stuck in the jungle on the Philippine Island of Luzon waiting for a helicopter ride back to base. It was 7 hours late and getting dark fast.
“Sir, the training exercise is over, but now it’s your job to ensure that Sergeant Klein comes back safely,” he explained privately to the somewhat-startled Lieutenant.
“You will not go back to the barracks and shower until he lands.” The Lieutenant wasn’t sure what to say — he was teetering between feeling angry that a lower-ranking Sergeant was telling him what was up and sensing the Sergeant knew what he was talking about.
If it was pushed, the Sergeant could be disciplined for insubordination, but there was no thought of that. He was highly respected by peers, juniors, and seniors alike, especially less-experienced seniors like the bewildered Lieutenant.
He was respected because he had courage. He had a deep sense of right and wrong and wasn’t afraid to act on it even if it jeopardized his well-being.
I learned a lot from him. Over the 20 years since then, I’ve studied and practiced leadership in various roles from military to corporate and I’ve found true respect to be critical to a leader’s success.
Here are a few ways to really earn it, not demand it or scare people into it.
#1. Think Independently
If you’re not thinking for yourself, you’re just a tool to implement someone else’s thoughts — and it’s hard to follow a tool.
A leader who doesn’t accept any words until they are filtered through their own intellect is the best kind of leader. This doesn’t mean a leader has to openly question every order from “higher-up”. That isn’t a recipe for fluid business operations. But they should question questionable things and be wise enough to know what battles to choose.
As a leader, this means you should value truth over what you want to hear. This encourages honest and open communication between you and your team. They know they can tell you the tough truths even if you don’t like to hear them. Only with this mindset can a leader make informed decisions which leads to earned respect.
“Small is the number of them that see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.” — Albert Einstein
#2. Stay On the High Road During Storms
It’s easy to be a good person when everything is going well. Even a rotten leader can fake good character when no challenge tests it.
On the high road during adversity is where true character is revealed. If you resort to lying or cheating or blaming to make life easier for yourself at the moment, your people will not respect you. A leader should value the tough times as that is when they are defined. And if you pass the test, it’s nice to know you can withstand difficulty without crumbling.
A leader’s character is revealed in storms, not sunshine.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” — Helen Keller
#3. Treat Respect Like a Mirror
The respect or disrespect you get is in direct proportion to the respect or disrespect you give. That includes to yourself. Respect is like a mirror — the way it is presented is the way it reflects back.
This is true in any role whether you are a boss or not. But like pearls before swine, sometimes you give respect but don’t get it back. That’s OK. This doesn’t mean you should stop giving it — it’s the same rule with kindness and courtesy.
If you respect who your people are, their skills, their personal and professional goals, their families and their character, respect will reflect right back.
This includes respecting yourself as well. A leader who has self-respect, self-love, and self worth is setting the example for others to agree with them.
“Men are respectable only as they respect.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
#4. Hold Yourself to Higher Standards
The best leaders value trust and honor highly.
Honor used to be and still is to many leaders more valuable than all the money in the world. To these leaders, losing their honor is like losing their life. To lose it would be to remain only as an empty shell of a human being.
Aiming for a high standard is respecting yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, it means you don’t value yourself. And if you don’t, why should anyone else?
The flipside of higher standards is that you’ll often fall short. That is totally OK and expected. It means you’re authentic. Authenticity is respectable.
Setting high goals means frequent failure. But failure when aiming high is a noble failure. Never let noble failure stop you, it should motivate you that you now know you have the courage to aim higher and will to persevere when you fall short.
If you hold yourself to the highest standards you can and get back up when you stumble, respect from others will follow.
#5. Value Humor
A healthy dose of humor is the social lubricant of leadership.
You can do everything right, but if you’re a no-personality stick in the mud, you don’t appear human. When you lack humanity it’s hard to earn respect. Henry Ward Beecher said:
“A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.”
Having a sense of humor can give a team a buffer of light and hope during a crisis. But it should never be used at the expense of another human being as that is seen as weak humor — a stepping stone for the insecure. And if you’re seen as insecure, it’s more difficult to respect you.
So hone and deal in humor, but not the “punch-down” kind.
“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
#6. Hone Your Craft
Being technically proficient is always a good way to earn respect. Even if you don’t know the nuts and bolts of every detail of your team’s job, you can try to learn without stepping on their toes.
When you know your job, your industry, and your profession you are seen as caring. Those who care more are respected more.
Reading is a heck of a way to hone anything. One statement from one of the best leaders I met personally, General James Mattis, in his book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead said:
“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”
While you can learn on the job and you may not need to read “hundreds” of books on a subject, there is so much accumulated knowledge out there you can tap into to be proficient. We humans always want to “learn it for ourselves.” That’s fine for some things, but the rest is just reinventing the wheel and making the same avoidable blunders that reading could have saved us from.
Read and hone your craft. Stand on the shoulders of giants by reading books. The hunger for acquisition of knowledge is always respected.
#7. Be Direct and Consistent
Wishy-washy was never used to describe a respected boss. A respected boss is direct with their words and actions and is consistent in the expectations for those they lead.
If a team has a boss who keeps their expectations on shifting sands, frustration and even despondency set into that team’s psyche.
A boss shouldn’t be consistent in everything though. Don’t be consistent in imagination. Don’t be consistent in daily habits if better ones can be adopted. Don’t be consistent just for the sake of it. But be consistent in your expectations for your team and your treatment of team members.
Be solid. Be direct. Be fair. Be firm. All while being kind. Consistently.
“Consistency is one of the biggest factors in leading to accomplishment and success.” — Byron Pulsifer
Being respected as a leader will make life so much easier and your team happier and more successful.
To recap ways a boss can earn true respect:
- Think for yourself. Don’t just be a tool for other people’s thoughts.
- Always take the high road. Especially during a storm.
- Give respect. Respect yourself.
- Hold yourself to higher standards. You’ll fall short often, but that should encourage you, not defeat you.
- Value humor. But not mean humor as that makes you look weak.
- Always be improving your craft, whether it be leadership, technical skills, or industry knowledge. Books help greatly with this.
- Be consistent in expectations and fairness. Be inconsistent in creativity and imagination.
If I had to pick the most important way to get respect now that would be to give respect.
Give it to your team and give it to yourself. Relentlessly.
And your mirror will reflect the respected leader you’ve become.