Sunday, December 8, 2013

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: What it Means to You as a Creative Leader

We are awash in quotations about leadership.  I read them everyday and I frequently have my thoughts provoked or am inspired, but I ordinarily resist the temptation to circulate them further.  While valuable as guideposts or summaries of the experiences or approaches of leaders, researchers, and others, I’m wary as a teacher and researcher of leadership of putting too much weight on pithy statements about such a complex and varied subject.

One quotation has recently stayed with me, however, and it comes from what for many today might see as an unusual source.  Rather than from the creative industries or the worlds of entrepreneurship or successful turnarounds of the last decade or two, the words were spoken by a woman, Mary Kay Ash, who started her own cosmetic and skin care products business fifty ago years ago.  That she was a women founder and CEO itself gives pause about how seldomly we cite female leaders for their views and vision.  But the resonance and import of her words seem to me to be universal for all leaders.

According to her namesake company website, Mary Kay “constantly encouraged both the corporate staff and the independent sales force to act as if each person they met was wearing a sign around his or her neck that read ‘Make me feel important.’”

We should not read such encouragement simplistically.  Some have criticized the “Mary Kay Way” of “praising people to success” as na├»ve or, amidst controversies around the company’s multilevel marketing model and product values, as manipulative.  In reflecting on the late founder’s words, I cast no judgment here on these other corporate issues.

Indeed, my focus is on those specific words and I would offer a slight updating for creative leaders today: Act as if each person you work with is wearing a sign around his or her neck that reads, ‘Respect me.’  

That update situates Mary Kay’s message at the heart of how many twenty-first century leaders strive to foster greater creativity and innovation.  Building more effective collaboration and teamwork are essential to being more creative and productive.  Such collaboration, in turn, is driven by greater trust and understanding between people.  More and more, I’ve recognized how essential the dynamics of trust are to creative activities and organizations.  Yet the necessary question then to ask is, how does one engender trust?  Among the usual answers, and good ones, are emotional intelligence and authenticity in leaders’ relationships with followers.  A related facet of trust-building deserving to be highlighted is the priority of better understanding how to respect individuals – with all their passions and aspirations, needs and vulnerabilities – that I take from Mary Kay.

The immediacy of her formulation is striking.  I confess that since reflecting about Mary Kay’s words, or my version of them, I have started having rather different conversations with colleagues with whom I’ve been standoffish or had difficult interactions in the past.  Imagining that they need to be respected and doing my best to honor the specific kinds of respect they seek has changed the nature of our interactions – and made us better collaborators.  That sign I envision around their necks is a regular and helpful reminder.

With emotional intelligence or authentic leadership, the empathy or authenticity we exercise with others has to originate in ourselves and a fuller understanding of our own fundamental values and purpose.  The same is true of the respect we seek to accord others.  As another, very different woman, poet Nikki Giovanni, puts it: “Deal with yourself as an individual worthy of respect, and make everyone else deal with you the same way.”  For creative leaders, powerful words worth quoting.