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Us and Them

I've travelled extensively over the course of my life. I began my career in the British Merchant Navy, working on a variety of ships and visiting ports all over the world. Some of the places I visited were exotic and fascinating. Some were exotic and terrifying. Some were very ordinary. They all took me well-and-truly out of the sheltered safety of my comfortable, English life and home.


I did that for a few years and then, when I gave up seafaring, I quickly found myself working in an international support role for a technology company. Again, I was travelling to foreign places, but by this time I was getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable, if you know what I mean. I was learning that the big, bad, scary world wasn't quite as big or bad or scary as it had once appeared.


The more places I visited, and the more people I met, the more I came to see that people everywhere are just that - people, human beings just like me, doing their best to live their lives, to provide for themselves and their families, and to find a little happiness.


For instance, there was the big, intimidating Nigerian customs officer who interrogated me and relieved me of a wad of assorted foreign banknotes on my way through Lagos airport. Later, he found me waiting in the airport lounge after my flight was cancelled and he bought me a beer. Then he sat with me and told me his life story. He turned out to be a very nice guy. I hadn't at first seen past the size of him, the uniform he wore, and the gun on his hip. I didn't begrudge him a few Dutch Guilders, some grubby D-Mark and a handful of tattered US Dollars ... It turned out he needed them more than I did.


Then there were the Iranians celebrating the Islamic revolution that swept away the corrupt regime of the former Shah. They were so happy, and their excitement and exuberance was infectious. Sure enough the Revolutionary Guards were armed to the teeth and had a fearsome reputation but up close they were just ordinary guys - happy guys, at that time, more inclined to laugh and fool about than to shoot anyone.


Or the Chinese guys for whom I ran a training workshop on writing software for a sophisticated automation system. I don't speak Mandarin and they only had a few words of English, but I drew a lot of diagrams and we laughed a lot, and by the end of the week they'd nailed it. They taught me how to swear in both Cantonese and Mandarin, skills that subsequently came in useful in my travels around east Asia.


It was like that everywhere. When I looked past first impressions and external appearances and saw the person, whoever she or he was, I saw another human being; we had more in common than there were differences between us. That person may not speak my language and may come from a culture radically different from my own, but in the end it became clear to me that there was no "us" and "them." There's only us over here, and us over there.


These experiences underlined for me the truth of Carl Rogers' concept of unconditional, positive regard. Rogers was talking about a therapeutic relationship between a therapist and a client, but it's clear to me that the concept applies equally well to any interaction between people. When we treat each other with unconditional, positive regard we see each other as fellow human beings. Mutual respect grows, suspicion, distrust and "fear of the other" fade, and before long we find ourselves understanding each other even when we don't have a language in common.


It ain't rocket science, as the saying goes.


In the leadership context, unconditional, positive regard is a critical success factor. One of the fundamental principles of leadership is the establishment of trust between the leader and the led, and the best way to start building trust is to treat everyone with unconditional, positive regard right from the start.


Without trust, there can be no true leadership. Where there's no trust, the leader is an autocrat, a dictator, while the led are cowed into submitting to the leader's will. That may be effective in the short term, but history shows that sooner or later all dictators come to a bad end.


Let me end by asking you a question.


When you meet new people, what's your default? Do you pre-judge them based on their appearance, language, cultural background, gender, sexual orientation? Are you intrinsically suspicious of anyone who appears in some way different to yourself? Or can you move past all that and recognise that this person is a human being just like you, and then treat them with unconditional, positive regard?



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