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Jewish Journal

Opinion: Commanding respect vs. demanding respect

by Erin Brown

February 1, 2012 | 12:38 pm

“For not as a human sees [does the Lord see]; humans see only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.” — I Samuel 16:7

It is not hard to mistake the outside for the inside. We do it all the time. Shine and sparkle often distract us from inner shallowness.

This distinction is particularly important in the arena of leadership, where a sleek head of hair sometimes covers for the fact that there’s not much underneath. The Hebrew Bible communicates this very message in the book of Samuel. The people agitated for a king, but Samuel warned them that the king would tax them and make their lives difficult. No matter. They insisted. God gave them a weak but good-looking king: Saul. He had the advantage of height, creating the image of a towering personality. In actual fact, Saul was not a person of great courage. He was riddled with insecurities and melancholy.

Saul’s successor came in the guise of an unlikely fellow. He was the “runt” of his family’s litter. When Samuel traveled to David’s father’s house, God said to him: “Pay not attention to his appearance or stature.” God knew that even a prophet could fall for external appearances. That is when God interjected the quote above. At the end of the day, human beings can only see that which is visible. That which is concealed, however, can be far more potent.

When David went out to his brothers at war to deliver food, he heard Goliath, a man of superhuman proportions, would challenge the Israelite army. Only little David had the courage of conviction to fight him. Saul dressed David in his war gear, but it was far too big, so David marched into an encounter with an enemy many times his size in civilian clothing, armed only with a few rocks.

David commanded respect because he was an unlikely candidate for leadership who earned the high regard of others. No one expected greatness. He delivered beyond any expectations. Saul, on the other hand, betrayed God’s expectations even though he looked the part. When Saul rose to a position of power, he lorded it over others only to lose any shred of respect that he otherwise might have merited

The restaurateur Danny Meyer wrote “Setting the Table,” a book about hospitality, service and leadership. Kitchens can be brutal places to work, and I’m only talking about mine. Restaurant kitchens are often embattled places, torn by hierarchies and egos. Meyer challenges that culture: “When certain people gain more authority and power, they tend to demand respect from those who work for them. But what got them their promotion in the first place was their natural ability to command respect. Demanding respect creates tension that can make it very tough to lead, and very uncomfortable to follow.”

Meyer claims that the higher you climb the ladder of power, the less technical skills matter and the more emotional skills are a key to success. In the words of a great book title, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Respect is a currency in human interactions that you earn. You can demand it, but the more you demand it, the further it runs from you. Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) asks: “Who deserves honor?” and answers, “The one who honors others.”

In this time of political vitriol, commanding respect rather than demanding it is particularly challenging. Honor is not skin deep; it surfaces from the goodness of untrumpeted deeds.

Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish nonprofits. She is the author of “In the Narrow Places” (OU Press/Maggid); “Inspired Jewish Leadership” (Jewish Lights), a National Jewish Book Award finalist; “Spiritual Boredom” (Jewish Lights); and “Confronting Scandal” (Jewish Lights).

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