If you were to ask me to measure the success of my military career, I would not point to the medals I was awarded, the awards I won, or even the missions I was asked to be on. Instead, I would walk you to my home office and point to the plaques I have hanging on the wall. You can take away every one of the medals and awards I’ve ever received, because the items on my wall are going-away gifts from the people that I’ve led, and they mean more to me than anything else. Now, it’s true, almost every military officer typically receives some sort of going away gift as a token of thanks from the people in their unit, but it’s very apparent that not all gifts are the same. It’s easy to tell if the unit liked their leader by how much time, money, and thought went into their parting gift. I can honestly say that the gifts I’ve received took a lot of time, money, and/or creativity to come up with, which is an indication that the people I led valued my leadership. Now, I say all of this with a heavy dose of humility, because this blog is not a forum for me to brag. It’s instead a way for me to share successful leadership strategies with you. And I want to tell you what I have learned you need to do if you want to be a leader who is respected by the people the lead.
There are several things that you can do to earn the respect of the people you lead. Notice I said earn, because it’s not a gift. Just because you are the boss and people do what you say doesn’t mean they respect you as a leader and want to do their best for you. In order to become that kind of person, here are a few things you should put into practice:
How well do you know the people on your team? Sure, you probably know their names, but what else do you know about them personally? Do you know what they are interested in? Do you know what challenges they are facing? How about with respect to their job, how well are they doing? What are their work conditions like? Can you empathize with what the challenges they face every day? You see, it’s hard to respect someone who doesn’t care about you. When a leader doesn’t show interest in the personal lives of the people who work under them, it’s really hard for those workers to see value in what they are doing. Your team needs to feel valued by you as the leader, and that starts with you taking the time to get to know who they are. I’m not talking about being best friends and playing golf every weekend – there certainly is a professional limit to respect. But honestly, how well do you know the people on your team?
The leaders that I respect the most in the military, in companies, and in school are the ones who are focused on making me successful. I remember telling my commander that I wanted to go to dental school instead of pursue a military career. He initially was confused because I had everything going for me, and thought I would make an excellent general someday (wishful thinking). The next sentence, however, was one of the most motivating and inspiring things ever said to me, “ok, what do you need me to do to get you into dental school?” My commander had my back and wanted the best for me, even if that meant leaving. That feeling of confidence and support from my leader motivated me to pour every bit of strength I had into my last months in the Air Force because I wanted to help my commander be successful, just like he was for me. Make it your mission to help your teammates succeed at whatever they want to do.
As the class president of my dental school class, I had to deal with an issue that was festering for a few months. As dental students, we are required to wear our navy blue scrubs every day, but rarely is that actually enforced by the school administration. A few of my classmates realized this and started to wear normal clothes to class, and it grew to the point where it became distracting. As the class president (who, let’s face it, doesn’t have any authority or power), I decided to do what I could to enforce the standard, which meant speaking to my classmates and asking them, individually, to wear their required scrubs. Thankfully, they all responded positively and it wasn’t a big deal. However, what do you think their reaction would have been if I too had not been wearing my scrubs? They would likely think I am a hypocrite and not have as much respect for me telling them to do something I am not willing to do myself. I am proud to say that I am a well-respected leader in my class, and a large part of that is because I hold myself and others to standards that I live out every day. Am I perfect? No, definitely not, no one is. But a leader earns the respect of their team by living out the values and standards they expect of their team.