Student Well-Being Opinion

The Role of Respect in Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 11, 2017 3 min read
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Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin made it a hit. Everyone could sing it and spell it...R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Baby boomers learned about it from their parents and in churches and schools. They were taught to respect their elders. Respect the flag. Respect the uniform. Respect authority. We were raised to think there were consequences to not showing appropriate respect.

Respect for settings and environments was reflected in how one dressed. It was translated into professionalism and to modesty...ties for men, closed toe shoes for women. Women did not have access to the Vatican if shoulders or knees were showing. Classrooms had the advantage of a world in which teachers were given respect. Sometimes, by nature of their positions, principals received respect also. And, yes, even superintendents. But times change and the doors open to the debate about whether respect is given or earned, whether it is extended to positions and roles or to individuals who occupy them, whether it is a societal absolute or an ethereal feeling or thought.

Formality Had a Role

Have you noticed recently that there are those who are debating whether the POTUS should be wearing a tie and be buttoning his sport coat? Meanwhile the former POTUS sits on stage at a worldwide conference similarly dressed. Titles are another way of bestowing respect. Some can identify with the day they were first able to be introduced as “doctor”. It reflected all the work, professional commitment and success one acquired after years of effort. Others will know the feeling of choosing to be called “Mrs.”. It denotes one’s place in a significant personal relationship and role. When a student calls a teacher Mr. or Mrs., does it carry greater respect than when the teacher’s first name is used? Certainly, it changes the nature of the relationship, and the environment. It shifts from the more formal and traditional into the more familiar and casual. But, that is an indicator only. Respect exists in all kinds of relationships and environments.

Respect is Expressed in Words and Behaviors

Respect is an attitude expressed in words and behaviors. It is a way of life. It is noticeable when it is absent. It is also noticeable when it is given to some and not to others. As school leaders, we know the perils of letting that happen. We also know how difficult it is to maintain that place of respectfulness when being accosted in a public meeting or when being lied to or sworn at behind closed doors. Yet, we check ourselves and take a breath every time. Even a momentary slip sets us and our agenda back immeasurably. We are behavior models for students and many of us are focusing socio emotional learning and supportive environments. Respect has its place among CASEL‘s social emotional competencies. It cannot be taught if it isn’t lived.

In his book The Leadership Contract, Vince Molinaro points to the ‘West Wing’ episode entitled “Take this Sabbath Day”. President Jed Bartlett meets with a priest he has known since he was a child. He is looking for guidance in his decision whether to commute a sentence for an inmate due for execution. At the beginning of the scene, the priest, played by Karl Malden, asks, “How should I address you?” The president, played by Martin Sheen calls his old friend by his given name. Nevertheless, he replies that he prefers to be called “Mr. President”. He offers an explanation. It is not a matter of ego.

Instead, as a president he has to make very important decisions: which disease gets funding or which troops are sent into battle...when confronted with these kinds of decisions, it is important for him to think of the office, rather than the man....It demonstrates a leader who never loses sight of his broader professional obligations. He realizes it’s not about him; it’s about the role he has and he needs a way to separate the man from the office so that he can effectively fulfill his obligations (p. 64).

Perhaps, had they been golfing, his answer might have been different. But, when doing the nation’s business, he could not personalize the friendship. In a culture where respect is increasingly more fleeting and respectfulness harder to find and sustain, we struggle to create islands where children and adults can experience both. If we are successful, we will be doing good work in and for the world. Now, that’s worthy of respect.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.