Leading Through Respect / Blog

Leading Through Respect primary image

David Wong read for an MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the Oxford Department for International Development. He was a 2014-2015 member of the Global Leadership Initiative.


Whether in politics or in other organisational structures, we frequently see leaders vested with the instruments of power – discretionary decision-making, ‘emergency’ executive authority, veto rights, etc. More often than not, we see leaders wielding these powers and tapping on them as important tools for maintaining their influence and authority. Without these institutions of ‘hard’ power, leaders may simply be ‘toothless tigers.’ Or so the argument goes.

The contemporary focus on the institutions of power however, obscures a ‘softer’ but vital component of leadership – respect. While the former gives leaders ‘hard power’ to lead through various carrots and sticks, the latter grants leaders attractive power (what Joseph Nye terms ‘soft power’); while the former compels obedience through the logic of consequences, the latter alters the preferences of those being led.

Respect is gained when people view leaders as serving the common good, and not their own selfish ambition. At times, this involves carefully tapping in on the institutions of power to lead wisely and effectively. At other times, however, this may entail distancing oneself away from the politics of authority. It may even require surrendering aspects of institutional power—relinquishing discretionary power over certain decisions, or not seeking an extra term in the existing leadership position. These have the effect of freeing leaders from the politics of patron-client relations and removes potential accusations of leading for personal ambition. This may earn leaders a reputation of service, giving leaders the respect and moral authority needed to make difficult (but necessary) decisions and reforms.

Often as leaders, we are quick to clamour for the instruments of power, justifying it as necessary for carrying out our task of leading. An overreliance on the ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach, however, may make us tardy leaders—leaders who simply rely on submission, and discard their responsibility to motivate their followers. There is another way to lead—leading through the respect of one’s peers.

Perhaps Machiavelli wasn’t exactly accurate when he advised rulers that it was, ‘better to be feared than to be loved’. After all, the ruler he wrote this advice to did not eventually employ his services.


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