Abuse, Respect and Leadership: Where Does the Power Lie?

Abuse, Respect and Leadership: Where Does the Power Lie?

One of the 12 “Culture Commitments” of the Florida League of Cities is “Treating everyone with dignity and respect.”

It is hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with this in the abstract. We all wish to be treated with dignity and respect. We probably also have some notion that we ought to treat others the way we want to be treated. Ergo, we probably all agree that, because we want dignity and respect for ourselves, we ought to extend it to others.

Like freedom of speech and of religion, however, we probably aren’t thinking of the most extreme cases that would challenge our commitment when we affirm it. We’re thinking of being decent to people we judge to be decent people. As Major Frank Burns of the old TV series M.A.S.H. once put it, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.”

But what about being respectful to those who aren’t nice? Is there an obligation to show respect to those who are disrespectful to us?

In the abstract, I think most of us still would say “yes,” but we might start to become conscious of exceptions we’d like to make. We might go so far as to offer some justification for acts of disrespect on our part when the target of our action is someone who has been profoundly disrespectful, especially someone who makes a habit of it.

Which, of course, suggests that we aren’t committed to treating everyone with dignity and respect.

The worst violations of this commitment typically arise when we can abuse someone or some group that lacks the power to respond effectively to our abuse. This can be the individual store clerk, server, office worker or member of a municipal staff who would risk losing his/her employment by offering a defense. It also can be an entire group (like Republicans or African-American males or Muslims) if they are effectively excluded from the forum in which the abuse takes place, or outnumbered or otherwise overpowered in that forum.

The targets of such abuse in such contexts are, as I put it in a chapter of More than Self, the perfect victims.

The thought that we are victimizing others who, in the context, lack adequate capacity to defend themselves should give any person of character pause. To stand up to Goliath is noble. To be Goliath is merely abusive, exploiting the power we have in the moment to do harm to others simply to satisfy our lust for self-gratification.

Nothing noble here. Nothing worthy of any of us.

So I’m brought back to the place where I started, and to a commitment to treating all others with dignity and respect.

There is something truly noble in being respectful when others are disrespecting us. There is real dignity in not joining others in undignified conduct, especially when we are the targets of their abuse.

Those of us who work in the arena of public service are likely to face serious challenges to our commitment with some frequency, especially in this era when so many seem to have low flashpoints for emotional combustion.

Treating with dignity and respect those who abuse us in the public arena . . . that’s a real expression of power . . . and of leadership.


Whether it’s from discerning this implicit power dynamic or a council meeting with your peers, there are leadership lessons to be learned wherever we look. Join Holly McPhail and me online for our On Demand webinar, Discovering Leadership, as we explore some of the inspirations behind the leadership lessons captured in my new book, More than Self. Click here to to access.