Respect My Authoritah!

“They have to respect us!” This phrase comes up time after time when we are coaching fraternity/sorority leaders on how to improve their new member education programs. They insist that ‘respect from new members’ be listed as one of the goals.  Every time I hear this, the voice of Eric Cartman starts shouting in the back of my head, “Respect My Authoritah!”

For those who may not remember, here is a refresher: In season 2, Cartman becomes the sheriff of South Park. Despite constant efforts to be taken seriously, no one gives him the respect that he believes he deserves. In one scene, Cartman rides up on his big-wheel, pulls over his friend Stan’s dad (who was driving the speed limit), and begins challenging him:

Cartman: “Step out of the car please, sir.”

Stan’s dad: “Wait a second, aren’t you Stan’s little friend?”

Cartman: “Sir, step out of the car please.”

Stan’s dad: “Yeah, you’re the one who always plugs up the toilet at our house.”

Cartman: Hey! I am a cop, and you will Respect My Authoritah!”

Stan’s dad: “Yeah right, you better get back to school little boy.”

A frustrated Cartman then pulls out his nightstick and gives Stan’s dad a brutal beating in one last futile attempt to get respect. Despite similar scenes throughout the episode, no one sees Cartman the same way he sees himself.

The attitude behind ‘new members must respect us’ parallels Cartman’s thought-process. “They have to show respect. We are the authorities. Whether we deserve it or not, this uniform (letters) and this badge make us special, and they should recognize that. They should look up to us and follow our instructions. Because we’re in charge! And if they don’t, we won’t let them in. Or we will force it out of them.”

The mentality is that, because someone has status or a stick, they should be admired. But when you think about how respect works ‘in the real world,’ this idea sounds ridiculous.  Erich Fromm says it best:

“Respect is not fear and awe; it denotes…the ability to see a person as he is, to be aware of his unique individuality. Respect means the concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation.”

Think about the one person that you respect most and why you respect them. In all likelihood, it has nothing to do with authority, status, seniority or how much alcohol they can drink. It didn’t happen because they demanded, expected, or requested it.  And it cannot be manufactured through yelling, errands, chores, verbal or physical abuse, or a series of challenging trials or inquisitions.

We ask this question during our workshops, and members give a very different explanation about the people they respect. They admire a sacrifice that someone made for them. They look up to people whose behaviors are consistent with their words. They respect people who have a unique talent and who have achieved something significant. They admire courage and hard work. And they respect people who believe in them and who provide constant support and encouragement throughout their life.

The next time you hear, “they have to respect us,” think of Eric Cartman rolling up on his big-wheel, demanding – with no credibility – that you submit to his authority. Then say to that person what you might say to Cartman: "Are you worthy of respect?  What have you achieved since initiation?  How are you giving up your time, talent, energy, effort to benefit someone else?  How have you lived up to your commitments?  Tell me what you did yesterday, last week, last month, last semester that I should genuinely admire. What have you done to make someone else’s life better? Show me all the hard work you’ve been doing.  What do you respect and admire in your new members?”

If they do have a good answer, start looking for meaningful and effective ways to show new members all these great things. Respect will naturally and genuinely emerge when they see your true character and leadership.

But if they don’t have a good answer, I like Stan’s dad’s response: “Yeah right, you better get back to school little boy.”

How is respect earned in your organization? Sign up to hear how our newest initiative, Thrive, can help improve your new member education program.