One of the founding pillars of Gestalt psychology is that human beings only perceive something as figural (noticeable) by perceptually de-privileging the “ground” (background) from which it has emerged. Study the latter more attentively, however, and the immediate distinctions between figure and ground become more ambiguous; new details about the ground emerge out of an originally perceived blur or homogeneity.

I’m stating this as an opener to today’s blog piece because I believe it has great relevance to anyone who’s adopting a new leadership role in an organisation. As a newly appointed leader, you may “have” respect as a direct result of the structural position of your role. However, that’s not the same as earning respect, a dimension of positive authority that effective leadership rests heavily upon.

The organisational “ground” you’ll need to study before you can garner this kind of respect isn’t only made up of the things people actually say and do; it also consists of the shared and implicit meta-rules that govern what gets said and done, what’s valued and what gets ignored or de-privileged.

When Jim Whitehouse became CEO at Red Hat, a provider of open source enterprise IT products and solutions, he noticed something unique about its employees: they were highly adept at sniffing out a leader’s intentions. Over-managing and grandstanding interventions were clearly out, but thoughtful and genuine contributions were definitely in.

It’s easy to ignore the ground of one’s own figural characteristics too. We’re accustomed to thinking about our strengths as effective leaders. However, it’s equally important to be frank and honest about our weaknesses; attempting to bluster with pseudo-knowledge is a fast way to earn rapid disrespect. Whitehouse, who knew nothing about enterprise IT when he joined Red Hat, deftly converted an apparent weakness or deficit into a respect-attracting virtue by being very open about the things he didn’t know and asking for clarification. The result? His credibility amongst employees grew exponentially.

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