Leadership is a relationship between the people of an organization and their leader. Higher level leadership is a dynamic feedback loop fueled by love and respect, the foundation of all good relationships. Love in this sense is not soft sentimentalism, romantic attraction, or permissiveness. Rather, it is the decision to act in the best interest of the other person, regardless of the consequences to self. Respect is recognizing in the other person the divine spark from which flows human dignity. The proper response to recognizing the innate value of other human beings is to treat them like we want to be treated.
The product of these dual principles acting in harmony is trust. Each party in the relationship can rely on the other to act in his or her best interest and to treat him or her as a person of dignity and value. When this happens, walls come down and defense mechanisms are disarmed. People can be their authentic selves, and honest communication flows. Trust activated becomes teamwork: people pulling together to overcome obstacles and achieve a common goal.
Things fall apart when one party in the relationship becomes me-focused rather than other-focused. Selfishness breaks down trust. Teamwork stops or morphs into a system of temporary alliances based on “enlightened” self interest. Leadership, then, devolves into manipulation using people’s fear and greed to gain compliance. Relationships and people become disposable and they tell each other that it’s not personal it’s just business. Organizations erect bureaucracies because leaders no longer trust people to be self-disciplined. Minimum standards become the expected norm. Mediocrity prevails, and the world suddenly resembles a bowl of cold oatmeal.
The only way out of this predicament is for people of faith and courage to return to the heart of true leadership: love and respect. If you aren’t at the top of your organization, start where you are. Create a pocket of Upside Down Leadership in your team, section, or division. Start treating people with love and respect, and they will respond. Most likely they will respond with skepticism at first, but persist and be consistent. Results will follow. When hiring, interview for character even more than for skill. Select candidates who have servant’s hearts and the potential to become Upside Down leaders. Eventually, your corner of the organization will outshine all others in terms of morale, operational excellence, and profitability.
But mark this warning. You may experience criticism from your peers and push-back from upper management, especially if their management philosophy is significantly different from what we’ve been talking about. They might not wait to see the full fruit of your efforts, and you could find yourself looking for another job. It happens, but take heart and be courageous. Be more careful in selecting the next organization you join — or as some of us have done — create a new organization with a culture intentionally designed around the dual principles of love and respect. The result will be a shining example of what people, properly led, can accomplish.