Respect: 3 Reasons To Forget All About It

June 4, 2019 Chris Pearse

Chris Pearse Contributor I write about the realities and challenges of leadership.


Respect: A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. (OED)

It feels good to be admired – to have others recognise your abilities, qualities and achievements. Sensing that your admirers may hold you up as a role-model, a paragon, is great for self-esteem. That they may even be envious of you – attempting to emulate your approach to business, relationships, even life – is confirmation that you are on the right track, and of the right stuff.

But on closer examination, the appeal of respect begins to tarnish. In his Daily Telegraph article Respect – the violent gangster’s ideal, Christopher Howse cites a famous line from The Godfather:

You come to me and you say: ‘Don Corleone, give me justice’, but you don’t ask with respect. You don’t even call me Godfather.

He goes on to expose the sinister threats of violence, even death, attached to the concept of respect, or rather its negative, disrespect. Disrespect is a heinous act according to an online dictionary:

the act of putting someone down, trying to make them feel low, treating someone in a horrible manner, showing a person that they mean less than nothing to you, a hurtful act that is both rude and ignorant towards another person’s feeling.

Today, failing to show someone respect is considered abusive, a borderline criminal act, requiring immediate condemnation at best, summary justice at worst. A lack of respect, which is simply a failure to admire, can end badly.

The reason the whole notion of respect has been hijacked in this way is threefold:

Firstly the concept of respect is confused. Originally the word carried a meaning of looking back. The link with the Italian word specchio – mirror – also suggests a retrospective. But whom do we look back at. You don’t need a mirror to look at someone else – you only need it to look at yourself.

That alone gives us a clue that respect is, in practical reality, nothing to do with how you view others, but singularly about how you see yourself. And how you see yourself is the lens (or the mirror?) through which you see everyone else.

Secondly, our preoccupation with respect often manifests in a concern that others should respect us – pay us respect – much less about our respect for them. Any fixation with others’ feelings towards us leads us down a difficult path, not least because we can only experience our own feelings, never another’s.

Attributing our feelings to another’s behaviour encourages us to change that behaviour. It also frees us from any responsibility we may have for our own feelings. Individuals who are practiced in the art of blaming others for how they feel are often prone to rectifying it forcefully – completely understandable given their misunderstanding of the mechanics of relationships.

Thirdly, the craving for others’ respect is no more than a zero-sum ego-trip. Given that we cannot know what others think and feel about us, from moment to moment, and cannot reliably change it anyway, our preoccupation is misplaced. Respect is best reserved for ourselves, our self-respect, from which respect for all life flows. Paradoxically, respect flows back quite naturally but only when all desire for reciprocity is given up.

In summary, the three reasons to abandon any investment in respect are as follows:

  1. Respect that others may have for us is their business not ours – their feelings cannot be felt by us and cannot be reliably changed.
  2. Concern for what others think amounts to a fantasy of no substance, a construct of the ego with no value but the capacity to dilute our purpose.
  3. Respect, in reality, concerns the way we see ourselves from which our entire experience of life flows – this is the only respect worth cultivating.

I help leaders accelerate their development and impact through a deepened awareness of our inner dynamics – the belief systems and emotions that shape our leadership. Discover more here…

Chris Pearse Contributor

I am an Executive Coach to leaders across diverse sectors including FTSE100s and SMEs. I am also an Interim CEO.