Commanding Vs. Demanding Respect

As an Infantry lieutenant, I had the privilege and good fortune to lead two rifle platoons. A platoon consists of about 30 soldiers with one officer and four to ten non-commissioned officers. I made all of the sorts of mistakes with my first platoon in California that you would expect a new lieutenant to make. Fortunately, I had good non-commissioned officers who gently corrected and taught me.

When I showed up in Colorado to take charge of my second platoon, I had a list of leadership principles that I had learned during my first year as a platoon leader. Right away, I shared these with my sergeants as I wanted them to understand what I expected and what I had already learned.

Among these lessons was “Commanding vs. Demanding Respect”. Although my sergeants and I had every legal right to expect our soldiers to respect and follow us, it was only our rank which demanded respect. By virtue of our positions, our team had to follow.

However, I advised them, we should never have to fall back on our position to make someone follow. If ever we had to “pull rank”, we should be embarrassed at our leadership failure. Instead, we should command respect due to our competence, our empathy, and our ability to get things done.

I pointed out my driver, Dave, as an example. As a private first class, no one had to do a thing he said. His lowly position didn’t demand any respect from peers or superiors. However, just about everybody in the company respected him and his opinions because he was so good at his job. His attitude and performance commanded respect from all who knew him.

The best leaders I’ve known have understood the difference between commanding and demanding respect. They’ve never had to influence anyone through demands or coercion. Great Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher phrased this understanding well.

“Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.”

Post-script: I recently learned from a friend that Dave is now a senior, field grade officer and continues to be a successful leader serving our country. His rank caught up to his respect.