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Leadership = Humility + Respect

Humility and respect are rare virtues; and that explains the lack of too many leaders!

How often do you run into someone in your professional world who talks condescending with you or is disrespectful with you?

I recently completed by MBA from Chicago Booth and made quite a few friends, who are all in extremely senior positions and well accomplished in their careers. One of them, Jessica (all names changed) had recently switched jobs. In a matter of months, her reporting manager changed post an internal restructuring. Jessica was hired in her company despite being a non-industry professional, simply because her first reporting manager, Glenn, valued her diverse experience, and highly respected her initiative to upgrade herself mid-career with an MBA from Chicago Booth (#1 as per The Economist ratings).  However, Jessica’s new manager, Samuel, wore a different undertone in his conversations with Jessica. He was snooty and impolite, almost as if he was interacting with someone from low places.  On one hand, Glenn interacts with his junior colleague with utmost respect, and on the other, an uppity Samuel is dismissive of Jessica and makes lofty remarks, to put her down.  In our practical worlds, we encounter many Samuels, and few Glenns. And what sets them both apart is humility and respect.

A higher position or title almost always commands respect. And therefore, the question of leadership and humility mostly becomes questionable in relationships with junior colleagues or peers.  Jessica, like many women, is not aggressive. She is selectively assertive, and allows her work to speak for herself. She doesn’t go about tom-toming, unlike few of her loud colleagues, about her achievements.  It’s effortless for a ‘Samuel’ to crush a resourceful ‘Jessica’ with a toxic environment that springs from his arrogance. 

A large part of leadership is humility. By definition, humility means having a low view of one’s importance. And therefore, by corollary, you believe the person next to you is as important as or more important than you. The Samuels typically believe that there is only one right way of doing things, and that’s theirs. Tolerance for different views is low, and therefore, Samuels will end up hiring many dim-witted people who can contribute very little to growth of an organization. These employees do nothing other than feed into Samuel’s self-importance. There is no place for Jessicas in this world.

Respect has many definitions and perspectives. But simply put, it is the way in which we treat or have regard for something or someone. Glenn respected Jessica for her efforts in taking up a vigorous academic challenge. It is highly possible that Glenn attaches importance to affiliations and awards, and so respect is attached to such events as well. However, on a broader level, any person in the hierarchy who is dedicating his time and effort to his job with sincerity, should command respect.  Disrespect also stems from lack of humility – when someone perceives the other as lower than them in position, class or even larger parameters of caste, creed, religion or race.

Respect and humility go a long way is creating a work culture that inspires talent and motivates employees to ‘go beyond’.  And recently around us, there have been some exceptional examples of leadership, that deserve to be highlighted, which have emphasized on these basic virtues of humility and respect –

It seems almost impossible to find the right words to fully describe my experience at LinkedIn — the thousands upon thousands of moments, people and learnings that comprised my true dream job. The most appropriate word I can think of is one that’s always held special meaning for me. It’s a word derived from Africa, “ubuntu,” that loosely defined means “humanity” or the way in which all of us are connected. A more literal translation is “I am because we are.” It’s a powerful concept and very fitting of my time with the team at LinkedIn and our 690M members, developing a community to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. I can’t think of a better way to describe my extraordinary journey with all of you over the last 11+ years: I am because we are. Those were among the last words I said at my final all-hands and they seem equally relevant here among the last words I’ll write as CEO: I am because we are.

– Jeff Weiner, ex-CEO, LinkedIn in his farewell post.

As I have learned these past eight weeks, a crisis brings you clarity about what is truly important. Though we have been through a whirlwind, some things are more clear to me than ever before. First, I am thankful for everyone here at Airbnb. Throughout this harrowing experience, I have been inspired by all of you. Even in the worst of circumstances, I’ve seen the very best of us. The world needs human connection now more than ever, and I know that Airbnb will rise to the occasion. I believe this because I believe in you. Second, I have a deep feeling of love for all of you. Our mission is not merely about travel. When we started Airbnb, our original tagline was, “Travel like a human.” The human part was always more important than the travel part. What we are about is belonging, and at the center of belonging is love. 

To those of you staying, One of the most important ways we can honor those who are leaving is for them to know that their contributions mattered, and that they will always be part of Airbnb’s story. I am confident their work will live on, just like this mission will live on.

To those leaving Airbnb, I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.

– Brian Chesky, CEO Airbnb on the decision to lay off employees in the recent global lock-down. How often have we seen a CEO apologizing to his employees?

Concluding, and coming back to the Jessicas of the world, in our everyday life, there are many people who treat us or talk to us in a manner that they wouldn’t want to be spoken to themselves. Lessons of humility and respect don’t come naturally to many, but need to be consciously inculcated by the Samuels of the world. Until then, the best Jessica can do is, like Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high!

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