Is respect changing?

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

Editor's note: Commentary by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith. This is the sixth article in an ongoing series in which the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center staff and faculty share their perspectives and spark discussion about the organization's lines of effort.

There are people in this world that I've never met that would stand unfulfilled in an extended handshake to me as well as there are strangers that I would risk my life protecting. In my face-to-face dealings with leaders, coworkers, people, and groups, gaining and giving my respect lies somewhere subjectively between those poles.

I believe that understanding respect is an introspective journey to how and why we value others, organizations, and ourselves. As they say in the office and on the battlefield, leaders cannot demand our respect; they must earn it through repeated actions that support our ideals.

The world seems to need more respect, with aggressive and distracted drivers, invasions of our peace and privacy, and a bombarding of daily news and social media about rude and uncivil deeds.

If other U.S. service members are anything like me, they look forward to coming in to work as an escape from it all. It is what I genuinely love about the service and the people I serve along: we very much respect our respect.

Respect is also a lynchpin to the defense of the nation. A salute is as just as powerful and essential show of respect today as ever. The military establishes itself through a hierarchy, its chain of command, ranks, and regulations, but it is also not immune to disrespect or the toxic workplace.

"If a leader intimidates, manipulates, and hollers to get people to do the work, they may get what they want out of fear but not out of respect or loyalty," my Commander recently told me in conversation. His words got me thinking.

Some may serve at unfortunate commands. But have faith, leadership assignments come and go in the military as well as such toxic leaders may not be able to lead much longer if they stifle innovation.

Harvesting innovation demands the highest level of top < down respect from an environment of trust, safety, and wellbeing. Why? Because creativity requires love in doing something. It can't be bullied.

From all of my enlistment experiences since the mid-80s, the toxic officer or senior NCO is an increasingly rare exception these days. I still read about them in the news, as well as worry about losing the outstanding leaders that we have right now; however, with innovation and creativity on senior defense officials' agendas, it seems that respect aimed down the chain of command is serious stuff.

I hope that leaders like Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, who is among the favorite enlisted leaders of our generation, will be the norm moving forward, rather than the exception. I believe that Chief Wright hopes for that too. I have never met him, but in my opinion, his form of leadership personifies a 21st Century military's approach with respect.

Consider the Chief at your unit that stops by to listen and catch up: they likely gain more for the mission from following through on such visits than if they dropped by only when they needed something. Consider the Commander who puts taking care of you at the very top of their mission. You likely serve your best for these leaders out of mutual respect, loyalty, and admiration. The approach can sometimes seem out of the ordinary in our experiences with the rest of the world, but never, ever, allow that media bombardment of rudeness and disrespect to lower your standards or condition you.

There remain the necessary levels of respect hoped for by everyone in this world: consider the Golden Rule to "treat others as you would treat yourself;" hopefully, we respect ourselves first and foremost. If a person's self-respect is lacking, because they are indolent, rude, dishonest, or selfish, they cannot fully develop from the foundational productivity, courtesy, honesty, or selflessness of others. It seems simple, but we can feel like knights battling a dragon of disrespect.

Fight the good fight for integrity, service before self, and excellence in all that we do.

(Sergeant Smith is Public Affairs manager for the Air National Guard's training and education center in East Tennessee.)