Tips for Respectful Leadership

Throughout my life and adventures I have encountered many good leaders and a few bad ones. The good leaders showed me what leaders should do and the bad ones provided examples of how not to lead. I suppose the following advice is dedicated to all of them. I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while, because I didn’t want any of the various leaders I’ve had to think that it was an indirect criticism of them. I’m publishing this now, because I’m pretty sure that Jen Smith, Levi Lewis, and everybody else at Scripps already knows that they are excellent leaders.

Not all leaders are respectful of their followers and they can get away with this in societies that are accustomed to high power distances (Ecuador, Mali) or in which obedience is highly valued (Japan, China). Disrespectful leadership, however, becomes a problem in low power distance societies (USA, Costa Rica) or in societies that don’t put a very high premium on obedience (much of the post-Milgram Experiment Western World). Leaders who disrespect their followers in these situations will likely spend more time dealing with drama than actually accomplishing tasks. To help future leaders be more effective, and to spare their followers a lot of unpleasantness I have compiled a list of tips for respectful leadership.

1) Lead by example. It is unlikely your followers will have much enthusiasm for doing anything you are clearly unwilling to do. It is also hard to convince someone the value of undertaking any activity (maintaining a clean office, eating healthy food, driving safely, etc.) when they see that you apparently don’t value it enough to do it yourself.

2) Be polite, but direct. When leaders yell, insult, bark orders, or otherwise act like Gordon Ramsey, followers tend to resent this. While it may keep them motivated in the short run, in the long run they’re likely to dread working with you and look for ways to either leave the environment or subvert your goals. It is, however, important to be direct regarding what followers should or shouldn’t do. Followers may not pick up on indirect hints and attempting to indirectly call attention to a breach of protocol by a follower may be interpreted as tacit acceptance or approval of that action.

3) Make rules and expectations clear. It’s easier to follow rules and meet expectations if followers know what they are.

4) Make realistic expectations and rules. It would be nice if someone went from not knowing how to swim to surfing double overhead waves in a week, but most people can’t do that. Surfers would also probably be safer if they were required to wear life jackets, but this would interfere with proper body position for paddling and make duck diving nearly impossible.

5) Announce any changes to rules or expectations. Unless followers know about a change they are likely to keep behaving as they always have and will not appreciate reprimands for doing things that were previously acceptable.

6) Be consistent in enforcement of rules and expectations. Any time a follower receives no feedback for failing to comply with rules and expectations he/she is likely to interpret this lack of response as a sign that such behavior can be continued.

7) Treat followers equally. This can be difficult as no human gets along equally well with all other humans and chances are you will like some of your followers better than others. Do not give preferential treatment to your favorite as it will build resentment in the rest of the group and going out of your way to mistreat the follower you don’t like will not improve relations between the two of you. Even if you have roughly equally positive or negative feelings about all of your followers try to ensure none are treated significantly better or worse than the others by chance. Rotate tasks to ensure that everybody spends roughly equal amounts of time doing the more and less pleasant jobs.

8) If there are multiple leaders in the group, make sure you give the followers consistent instructions. Meet beforehand to determine what the rules and expectations should be and make sure all leaders agree on any future changes.

9) Be open to respectful questions and feedback from followers. Obviously it isn’t desirable for followers to spend lots of time asking questions or commenting on the proceedings during time-critical activities (surgery, bomb diffusion), but do allow followers time to comment and offer constructive feedback during planning stages and debriefings.

10) Make it clear that followers need to respect you. Respect goes both ways and if you treat your followers respectfully you have every right to expect the same from them. Should a follower fail to be polite for example, say to him/her “I always speak courteously to you and expect you to do the same for me”.

Most guides to leadership act as if you follow the first set of instructions, followers will always obey rules and meet expectations. This is simply not true. No matter how good of a leader you are your followers are still going to occasionally cut corners or try to push the envelope. The next tips are about how to deal with that situation when it inevitably arises.

1) Make sure the follower has actually transgressed. Few things hit your leadership credibility harder than attempting to reprimand someone for something they didn’t do.

2) If you break rule number one apologize. You may feel stupid in the short run, but will earn the respect of your followers in the long run.

3) Use non-hostile language and discuss the specific problem when reprimanding a follower. Let’s say you have a follower named Fred who you told to clean out the shed and he didn’t do a very good job at it. It is much better to calmly say, “Fred, I am disappointed that when you cleaned out the shed you neglected to sweep the floor and take out the trash.” than to scream “Fred you did a shit job. The shed looks like a pigsty.”

4) Humiliation is not a good teaching tool. Whenever possible reprimand followers privately rather than publicly. Avoid the temptation to use them as a ‘teachable moment’.

Pro tip 1: Some people cry easily and see this as a source of great shame. If you think a long discussion is required make sure glasses of water are available.

Pro tip 2: Nobody responds well to any variation on “Look me in the eye.”

5) Refrain from judging the follower’s character. You may think that Fred’s poor shed cleaning job means he’s a lazy slob, but calling him one will not improve the situation.

6) Reprimand only once per transgression. Many leaders lecture followers multiple times after a transgression with the idea of reinforcing the message. Followers, however, tend to interpret this as condescending and piling on. This also risks causing followers to assume that all future interactions with you will involve lectures or other reprimands and this is not what you want as a leader.

7) Think carefully about what sort of questions you ask your follower during this situation. Ideally only ask ones that help clarify and that you and your follower don’t both already know the answer to. For example, “Why do you think you have so much conflict with your roommate?” is a useful question while, “How many times have I told you not to fight with your roommate?” is not.

8) Keep your hands to yourself. Followers tend to view reprimands as antagonism even when said reprimands are completely justified. People do not like to be touched by someone they perceive as an antagonist, even if the relationship between you and your follower is usually much happier (and I sincerely hope it is).


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