I learned the most important lesson on earning respect when I worked as a car salesman. Each morning, I’d walk into the conference room for our pre-day sales meeting, always terrified my boss would fire me in front of my peers.
We called it the wheel of blame. Whenever this manager didn’t meet his quota for sales, he’d pick someone as the culprit behind the failure — almost as if he spun a wheel and let it choose this person randomly.
The victim had two choices: accept the blame and the requisite punishment or deny they were at fault and risk being fired in front of their peers.
Sound harsh? He once told us he did this because the only way he (or anyone) could manage a gaggle of salespeople was to command their respect. Like many folks, he made the classic mistake of confusing fear with respect.
The words are not interchangeable. We earn respect only by eliciting deep admiration from others without threat or intimidation.
To become deeply respected, start with the conventional wisdom: be fair, be kind, fight for what you believe in, and persevere through struggles. But you need to go deeper than that.
The people we respect most demonstrate other qualities we often overlook.
History has mostly forgotten Margaret Chase Smith. She was a freshman senator from Maine and the first one to stand up to Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism tyranny. She gave her declaration of conscience on the Senate floor, and only six other party members supporter her.
Being the first one to stand up to McCarthy came with risk.
Party leaders shunned her until McCarthy’s downfall, but she earned the respect of many notables at the time and later ran for President in 1964, dropping out before the primaries ended.
Be the first to lead. Be the first to defend. Be the first to organize. Being first puts you at risk for rejection, attack, and ultimate responsibility. That’s why most folks refuse to do it. But those we respect most assume that role regularly.
When I used to visit a former mentor of mine, he would always put his phone in his briefcase or desk before our meeting. Then, he would tell his assistant not to interrupt him. His assistant already knew not to interrupt him. She had been working for him for years.
My mentor went through these unnecessary theatrics because he felt it critical to demonstrate to others that he valued their time as much as his own.
When I sat down with him, he never made small talk. Instead, he pulled out his notepad with a few prepared questions and took copious notes as we spoke.
Every time I left his office, I felt like he had devoted 24 hours of energy into our 55-minute meeting.
Years ago, I worked in a hotel and became friends with a tight group of coworkers. One member of the group, Hannah, seemed quite odd at first.
One night, we all decided to go to a club, but she surprised everyone by saying she’d go to the old-folks jazz bar. The eye-rolls and sneers didn’t stop her.
At times, she’d go along with the group, but never when it conflicted with her individuality. It didn’t make her popular, but over time, her willingness to resist peer pressure made her respected.
The people we respect most don’t follow the crowd just to appease the majority. They’ll do their own thing, and if nobody else joins them, so be it. Even if we resent or laugh at people like that, it’s hard not to respect someone with the courage to resist peer pressure.
Nelson Mandella spent 27 years in prison in apartheid South Africa. Upon becoming President in 1994, nobody would have denied his right to seek revenge against those who had wronged him and the millions who had suffered with him under the apartheid regime.
Instead, Mandella’s government instituted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It allowed victims to share their stories but also allowed perpetrators of crimes to give testimony in exchange for amnesty. It was a path that required enormous restraint of his newfound power.
Most of us have been wronged at times, barely registering a fraction of what Mandella experienced. Yet, the slightest insult or jibe unleashes an urge to even the score.
If someone has wronged you, nobody will blame you for seeking a small dose of retribution. Those, however, with an extraordinary resolve to forgive, earn our respect, even if we wouldn’t choose that path for ourselves.
Years ago, I worked at a world-famous hotel. Before getting the job, I had to interview with the GM. As I sat in the reception area, I struggled to keep my body from trembling, surviving on copious amounts of coffee, and two hours of sleep.
But when he emerged from his office, he didn’t invite me in. Instead, we went to the cafeteria because he felt the setting was less intimidating. We chatted for twenty minutes, like we were old friends. I had never felt so comfortable with someone who wielded so much power.
That was his thing. He demanded much from his people, but he earned everyone’s respect by going out of his way to ensure everyone with less power felt as though they were his equal.
As a kid, I played competitive tennis. When I won, I showed admirable sportsmanship. But when I lost, my temper raged. I’d blame my losses on bad calls, court conditions, cheating, or anything other than the truth — my opponent outplayed me.
People who command respect act graciously in victory and defeat, whether it’s in athletics, business, love, or even a game of trivial pursuit. They avoid making excuses for their loss and, instead, acknowledge their competition won the day.
Good sportsmanship demonstrates respect for others. That, in itself, is a crucial lesson. If you want people to respect you, treat them as champions.
If I asked you to name five of your principles, could you do it? Would you have to think about it? It’s difficult to honor your values when you can’t articulate them.
Principle-minded people codify their doctrine and keep their list handy as a reference for when life tests them. I learned this lesson after I failed to live up to my principles.
An exec at a former employer chewed out a coworker for a mistake he never made. I knew I should have defended my coworker, but I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to risk my status.
Sure, you do risk unpleasant outcomes when you live up to your principles during challenging circumstances. But you will earn respect for living up to your code when it would have been safer to look the other way.
Respect. It almost seems too demanding, but that’s what makes it such a valuable commodity. So few accept the burden of living up to the standard.
This article was originally published on Ladders.
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