Respect: Human Leadership by Simon Smith

“Don’t worry Boss – if the shooting starts we’ll shoot the Commanding Officer in the back and follow you.” That was a comment made to me by one of my corporals when I was in the leadership ‘team’ of a radar unit in the Falkland Islands, in the South Atlantic. I’m sure you can understand why it’s stuck in my mind as a lesson in leadership!

It was also a major influencing factor in me leaving the British RAF after 10 years. I found it hard to respect leaders who relied on (and often hid behind) their rank and position for their leadership rather than respecting and leading people as human beings. Clearly neither I, nor my team, had any respect for that boss.

And of course, my boss didn’t respect me as a leader. But my men did.

I was leading a team of 40 people in a non-peacetime environment, literally living in shipping containers and portacabins on top of a mountain (see photo – and that was a warm Spring day!). Men were 8000 miles away from their families and there was one restricted use satellite phone to call home that cost about $8/minute. There was no internet in those days! In this instance, I chose to focus my respect on my men and take the heat from my C.O. It was worth it.

Mount Kent Radar site, Falkland Islands. The block of buildings at the centre-rear of the picture was our accommodation block. 100 knot winds (185kmh) weren’t unusual on the 100m walkway to work.

Over my 33+ years in the workplace, there are only 2 or 3 leaders that I’ve directly worked for whom I’ve absolutely and totally respected. That’s pretty poor. But, it’s one of the key reasons I’m so passionate about ‘making the world a better place through better leadership’. I want to change that. We NEED to change that!

A lack of respect in the non-military/military peacetime environment may have less than fatal consequences for leaders and teams. However, the consequences can be grave in terms of engagement, performance and turnover, and subsequently significant for the effectiveness, profitability and even survival of the organisation as a whole.

Respect is on the majority of values lists in many organisations. However, rarely are the on-the-ground behaviours, underpinning the value “Respect,” clearly defined. This is one of the major problems. And when they are defined, they are not monitored, rewarded or enforced.

Leaders often demand respect through status and position. Staff often demand respect through the fact they are employed and working.

The dome protecting the radar from the wild weather, winds and snow.

You also need a healthy dose of self-respect as a leader. If you don’t respect and believe in yourself, it makes it harder for others to respect you. Respect is earned. Respect is a 2-way street. You don’t get respect because you have a leadership position. You don’t get respect because you’re employed in a  team. You earn respect from treating people like human beings: caring for them and treating them well.

To be an effective leader you need to be respected – not necessarily liked. Sometimes as a leader, you have to make some difficult choices: it’s your responsibility to make those choices. As a team-member, you also have responsibilities to fulfill. It can be a tricky balance of self-respect, respect for your team, respect for your boss and managing up.

Conscious choice through self-awareness and continuous learning are key. And learning from your mistakes when you inevitably get it wrong. Because as a human being, you will. Respect yourself for that.