Manners Matter: The First Principle of Effective Leadership

“The opposite of good manners isn’t bad manners; it’s meanness.”

Freedom of choice and social tolerance are a significant part of my personal philosophy, but with a major sticking point: freedom of choice comes with the obligation to face its consequences – no safety net provided. My philosophy has changed little over my lifetime, while my intolerance for incivility has grown.

Ancient Greek Palace outside Thebes Greece

We are sliding toward increasingly mean-spirited, rude, and self-centered behavior coupled with reluctance to calling others out for their rudeness[1]. We have political leaders who take pride in their boorish behavior, others who hold us in contempt if we disagree with them, and still others who feel no obligation to answer the questions asked of them. Recently, testy campus protesters have reappeared on the scene clamoring for “safe spaces” to protect themselves from the “micro aggressions” of the day – often, by invading the safe spaces (i.e., offices) of deans and other college administrators. Then there are the ongoing public debates about important issues such as climate change, gay marriage, and abortion where each side talks past the other and treats it with disdain.  These things are not about institutionalized intimidation or political correctness, but the loss of everyday civil behavior along the lines of treating others as though they too matter.

I had been thinking about the state of American civility and civil ineffectiveness, when I was honored by an invitation to speak to a group of students in their second year at a major university’s MBA program. They had signed up for a course titled – Principled Leadership for Business and Society. That’s an important topic, one that aligns with my interest, and something that I thought I might have thoughts and experience to share that would interest the students.

After all, who wouldn’t want to be a principled leader or to have the pleasure of working for one? According to the syllabus, one of the questions the course answers is along the lines of: What inclines us to follow some people and not others? Given the title of the course, an implicit assumption is that being principled is a plus when it comes to being an effective leader; i.e.., someone who earns the loyalty of committed, competent, and enthusiastic followers.

One of these principles has to deal with leader decorum. If for no other reason, good manners on the part of a leader are important because of the power difference between leader and follower. Good manners on the part of a leader signals to followers that they are respected, which is a first step toward earning their trust.

Manners in Perspective

What I am talking about is politeness: the largely ignored lubricant of a positive and productive relationship. As philosophers will tell you, it’s the purest and, at the same time, the most artificial of all virtues. It’s artificial in the sense that there is no difference between seeming to be polite and actually being polite. In a nutshell, good manners are the choice to show respect and protect the dignity of another person. This makes it hard for me to understand why anyone would choose bad manners over good manners; especially, when a positive relationship means a better result for all concerned.

Nonetheless, bad manners are not only increasing, but increasingly accepted. I have wondered why this shift downwards in personal standards of decorum has bothered me and, more importantly, what difference it makes. After all, manners – bad or good – don’t really tell you much about a person. Nonetheless, manners may matter more than you might think. A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness – observed influential science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein. There is truth behind his observation: researchers find small acts of rudeness can quickly escalate to increasingly harmful events.[2]  Because I am committed to a prosperous United States of America and, not incidentally, to preserving its culture, I’m more than a bit sour on the prospect of the decline and potential demise of something that I love. I wonder if our loss of civility isn’t partly to blame for the bunker mentality on political and social issues and the “gotcha” attitude of public discourse.  It stands to reason that if someone’s manners put you off, it will be that much more challenging to appreciate their position and, thereby, to actually solve a problem.

Politeness: The Mother of Virtue

Politeness is an important first step on the path to moral development.[3] Morality, at first, is only good manners and compliance with the rules of etiquette. Politeness (“One doesn’t do that.”) comes before morality (“One shouldn’t do that.”).  Through practice, politeness becomes intentional, habitual behavior. Keep this chain in mind as I review my experience with the MBA students and their leaders (i.e., the professors).

Although my public speaking chops had dulled from the lack of use, I accepted the speaking invitation with considerable enthusiasm and looked forward to interacting with students who were learning the foundations of principled behavior, including the principle of decorum. Because the class was an introductory one, it came as no surprise that the students were heavy on theory and light on practice. What did surprise me in a course intended to teach values, ethics, and morality to budding leaders, was the students hadn’t learned the first ingredient of principled leadership: the choice to be polite. (A legitimate explanation for this omission is that their professors do not share my theory of leader character and how it is developed.)

Manners are taught by someone in a position of authority such as a parent or teacher who insists upon their practice rather than waiting for it to somehow magically appear. I can’t count the times that my parents explained their direction to my sister and me with: “Because I said so!”  After all, we don’t come into the world principled about anything except wanting what we want; instead, we learn to be principled first through forced compliance (“Because I said so!”) and then through the intent to be better and exposure to better ways of being. At first we pretended to be polite (It was easier to say please and thank you than to suffer that “look” from my mother) and were acting as though we cared about another person. This is usually insisted upon by your parents or some other teacher.

Because the students lacked sensitivity learned through experience with hearing impaired people and, therefore, awareness that they should  sit closer to the front of the classroom (doing otherwise leaves an uncomfortably large social space between speaker and audience), their teachers should have told them to do so. In a class meant to teach the value of virtue, it was up to the professors (teachers) to impose “Because” to set the stage and the standard for welcoming a guest by insisting the students move forward. By not doing so the professors missed an easy opportunity teaching-wise about the formation of a leader’s principles.

Layer onto this missed opportunity that I set the students up for a show of politeness by telling them in a nice way (and, I thought, with some humor) that I am severely hearing impaired. (People with normal hearing typically do not understand that accommodating impaired hearing is rarely about turning up the volume; rather, it’s about clear and close diction that allows the hearing impaired person to “see” what is being said.) So, I had to deal with an uncomfortable social gulf as well as the distraction of having to scamper around the classroom in order to see what the students were saying.

While I was well-prepared for the class, I had the impression that my talk was not as well received as I would have liked. Since the students were required to evaluate guest speakers, it would have been nice to have had my impression confirmed by a thumbs-down or, less likely, corrected by rave reviews.  This, of course, was bad manners on the part of the professors rather than the students. I had asked to see the evaluations, but did not receive them. Finally, since I chose to give the talk gratis, a thank you note – or even a thank you email – from the professors would have been an act of good manners on their part.

“You Like Me?”

The question mark says all there is to say about the morality of good manners; that is, politeness is neither moral nor immoral, neither confirming nor disconfirming of another person. That’s also why my classroom experience is a useful example: The students showed up and I did my job the best that I could, no one had bad intentions and information was exchanged, and life goes on. In short, in the scheme of things – the students’ lives and my life – the class was of little consequence, except for being a perfect learning platform for an often overlooked virtue: being pleasant and easy to be with.

The importance of politeness is the choice to be (possibly) better than we are. Its sole intent is to appear to have regard for the dignity of another person.  And like any other state of character, it arises from practice to become habit and to reveal the purpose of being polite: To put people at ease and, therefore, make them more approachable, less defensive, and easier to deal with.

Stand this outcome in contrast to the bullying and demeaning nature of bad manners. In this sense, good manners are a crucial first step to setting the table for better and more genuine things to come such as the practice of true values such as humanity and justice. Bad manners do nothing except to tap into that uniquely human vice we experience as meanness and its purpose of intimidating, disregarding, and harming others.

So What?

It’s important to remember that there are no natural virtues: We are born with none, can learn them all, and change whichever ones we want to change. All virtue is learned through education and experience, and perfected through intentional practice. Politeness is a pain-free practice of being virtuous. We act as though we cared until we actually do care, fake just acts until we are just, and so forth. In this sense, being principled is an act of discipline before it is an act of habit. Of all of the virtues, politeness may be the easiest one to learn and set the pattern for learning others. Which brings me full turn to my fixation on leadership and answering one of the questions posed by the leadership class: What inclines us to follow some people and not others?

I am convinced that good manners are part of influence; if only a small part. Leaders show they care about the dignity of their potential followers which contributes to the approachability of the leader, and the sense on the part of followers that the leader just might care about them.  While followers have many needs, one that seems common to all of them is the need to feel as though they belong and have significance. The belief that we matter is a powerful motivator for what leaders crave in their followers:  teamwork, productivity, and loyalty.  These gifts from follower to leader often come free of charge with the simple act of good manners.

For those of us with less than thick skin (i.e., most of us), bad manners can obliterate these feelings, and in doing so destroy or seriously limit a leader’s ability to attract and retain followers. This is a particularly damaging outcome as the best followers are always volunteers in the success of their leader and can rarely be compelled to be enthusiastic, perform at a high level, or stay.

Lie Until It Is True

In view of the above discussion, one of the first lessons the wannabe leader needs to learn is the lesson of constructed respect. This is the skill of convincing people that you care about their comfort and well-being, regardless of whether you actually do.  Even a faked smile is still a smile if it is well faked and, in my experience, good leaders are good actors. They can feign interest in the comments of someone even when a root canal would be a preferred way of spending their time, show interest when they have none, and generally put people at ease when what they really want to do is to pound them on the head. Before you go ballistic on me about the “authenticity” thing, there is no faking when it comes to good manners: you are well mannered or you are not and, in the nature of this virtue, it does not matter whether you have to fake it. What matters from a leadership perspective is that good manners pave the way for what every leader needs to be able to do: connect with his or her followers.

Advice on the need for and skills of connecting with and engaging employees, customers, and other stakeholders has become a profitable industry, supplemented by countless “how to” and “why it’s important” speeches, workshops, articles, and books. What they exploit is an insight as old as the first tribal culture: without a meaningful connection there is no trust and without trust there is no enthusiasm or sense that one belongs and has significance.

While I’m not up to speed on all the available advice on how to connect, none of the ones I am familiar with say: “Step One: Engage the person by showing interest and practicing good manners.” This sensible advice seems to be largely ignored even though the intent to be polite precedes all acts of good manners. A simple explanation for this lack of attention to Step One is that leaders often fail to recognize the necessity of “wooing” one’s stakeholders or anyone else they want to connect with and influence (the core verb of leadership).

So, back to my classroom experience of indifference to my impairment and the apparent failure to appreciate my donation of something that cannot be replaced – my time: What I experienced is not the result of intentional impoliteness. Rather, it is the result of the failure to intentionally be polite and to ask oneself just what that might look like.

Perhaps business leaders are shooting too high; it could be that they need to abandon the tactics of connecting (e.g., “learn five new names per day”) and rethink their commitment to meaningless things such as exceeding customer expectations (most enterprises, but not all, have no way of knowing what individual customers expect). They could emphasize the skills of politeness to be learned in the event that an employee did not learn them at home. That is exactly what the United States Air Force Academy and some universities (e.g., UCLA) are doing in order to teach their emerging leaders how to pave the way to potentially connecting with whomever it is that they may want to influence.  If they want a deeper dive, they could teach the process of virtue (principles in the lingo of the class) assimilation. My sense is that in raising our children and developing our leaders, we have emphasized “how” at the expense of “why.” It is as the German philosopher Schopenhauer reminds us: “. . . a wise thing to be polite; consequently, it is a stupid thing to be rude. To make enemies by unnecessary and willful incivility is just as insane a proceeding as to set your house on fire . . . politeness is like a counter – an avowedly false coin, with which it is foolish to be stingy.”


[1] Insidious Workplace Behavior.  J. Greenberg, Ed., Taylor and Francis Group, 2010.

[2] Andersson, L.M., & Pearson, C.M. Tit for tat? The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace.  Academy of Management Review, 24,3,452-471.

[3] Comte-Sponville, A. A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Use of Philosophy in Everyday Life. A Metropolitan/Owl Book, 2002.

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