Lessons from the Dojo: Honesty and Respect

Not so long ago I worked with an organisation to address concerns raised by a number of staff regarding the approach of a senior leader.  As a part of the process I met with people across the business to get their insights.  That is how I met Jim, a gentleman well into his sixties who had been working with the organisation since he left school.  Jim is in manufacturing and spends his days working with his ‘boys’, as he calls them, in a hot, dirty and potentially dangerous environment.  The quintessential ‘rough diamond’ Jim turned up for our meeting covered head to foot in dust, spoke with a gravelly voice and had a polite yet no nonsense way about him.

Jim was appalled by the conduct of the senior leader in question and had this to say:  ‘two things matter – honesty and respect.  If people stuff up they have to know about it but they deserve respect.  This guy is rude and unfair – it doesn’t matter how important he thinks he is, or what the mistake is, shouting at his team is unacceptable and dumb.’  Jim went on to share that he is perplexed as to why the senior leader would consider his approach either appropriate or effective.  In Jim’s mind it was a matter of common sense that getting the best from people takes earning both their trust and respect. To do that Jim believes a leader must be upfront but polite, frank but courteous.  Jim told me ‘you have to hold these guys accountable but you’ve also got to cut them some slack, be reasonable, and talk to them with respect’.

Even when people are behaving badly Jim doesn’t believe it’s necessary or appropriate to reciprocate, and I couldn’t agree more.  ‘Sometimes the guys will mess up because they are stuffing around and that’s when you have to be really firm; but you have to be an example or how will they learn?  You can’t expect anyone to listen to you, to respect you, if they see you behave badly too’.  As I listened to Jim I was inspired by the power of his words and reflected on how well he understood people leadership relative to his far more senior colleague who has had the benefit of many years of leadership training and earns a very big salary to do his job.

Chapter six of my book, The Corporate Dojo, is about Tough Love.  Here I share the critical importance of a leaders ability to be completely honest while delivering a critical message with compassion and sensitivity.  Tough love is an empowering and respectful process of delivering fair and necessary feedback with conviction.  There is no doubt in my mind that telling the truth can be a powerful opportunity to help a person understand and take ownership of changing his or her reality. Unless this constructive criticism is delivered well, however, it is unlikely people will be able to take the message on board and learn from the experience. We all respond differently to being treated badly, some of us withdraw, some of us get angry and others choose to simply ignore the behavior.  However few of us are inspired and better enabled to perform by a leader who is disrespectful.

As Gandhi said, ‘Whenever you have truth it must be given with love otherwise the message and the messenger will be rejected.’ And in the words of Buddha ‘When words are both true and kind they can change our world.’

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3 thoughts on “Lessons from the Dojo: Honesty and Respect

  1. This is a timely and important reflection.

    Some of the best paid and (questionably) most influential leaders don’t get this.

    A few years ago I was responsible for ensuring that the products and advice that the organisation provided was fully compliant with regulation and standards covering financial advice. The GM Sales at the time was notoriously rude and offensive to colleagues and staff and the behaviour was condoned because of his network of contacts and the business he brought to the company.

    In the wake of the mismanagement in banking and financial institutions that has recently come to light; I wonder how many organisations condone inappropriate behaviour at the top?

    • Thanks for your comments Craig. Unfortunately all too often we observe organisations who fail to address inappropriate conduct from senior leaders. In some cases their inaction is due to their fear of what they think they may lose – in the case of the example you provide, valuable networks. In other cases a lack of understanding of the impacts poor leadership behaviour has on the spirit and engagement of the team as well as business culture is the key issue. I recommend the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind which provides amazing insights into just one example of a dramatic demise of a supposedly powerful organisation thanks to the inappropriate conduct of leaders.

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