Honor Lost—Putting Others First

January 2011, by So-Young Kang

Happy Chinese New Year! As we start off 2011 after resting and being refreshed, one of my personal focus areas for this year will be on the concept of ‘honor’ so I invite you to journey with me to find honor again.

What is honor?

I recently finished reading the book, Honor’s Reward by John Bevere. It opened up a concept that I admit I was not familiar with or very comfortable with. For example, when they would say “honor your husband” at weddings, I would cringe and wonder what they really meant. I realized that I had the wrong definition. For me, it meant being blindly obedient, subservient, and less valuable. But I realized that was a very limited and inaccurate definition. There are many cultural East-West differences with one of the biggest differences being around the concept and tradition of honor. How people honor their elders and superiors is an important part of the social norms that govern how people relate to each other. Does that mean that all younger people are ‘less valuable’ than the elderly? That doesn’t seem to be the case. So what does it mean? Having grown up in the West, I wonder – is honor lost? I see changes happening in the social structures all over Asia and worry if honor is being lost…I hope not.

To prepare for this article, I asked several people “What does honor mean to you?” I got various answers related to “recognizing someone for their achievements” to “showing respect.” Is this all? In dissecting the various references to honor, I realized that we each have different notions of the word so instead of trying to define it, I thought it may be helpful to share some of the elements I have observed related to honoring others.

  • Recognition of position and authority (e.g., boss, elders, parents, government, religious leaders)
  • Putting higher value on others over self
  • Prizing your relationship with others
  • Obedience and respect
  • Valuing what others have to say
  • Giving others the ‘best’ (e.g., seat in the house, first pick of food, finest things)
  • Acknowledging someone (e.g., contribution, age, position, accomplishment)
  • …[Your idea here. Please share.]

As I stepped back from the short list of observations, it triggered a linkage to something much deeper – a moral code which allows these mindsets and behaviors to be manifested. The ‘honor system’ is about more than a set of rules and regulations but an embodiment of a group’s values, aspirations and deepest commitments to each other.

“Fail to honor people,they fail to honor you; but of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’” -Lao Tzu

Why honor?

So as a leader – as the boss – as the person in the position of authority, why honor? Shouldn’t you be honored by those around you?

Yes and Yes. Given that we can only directly control how we behave, let’s focus on why you should honor others and I believe the 2nd question will naturally follow. Here are at least 3 reasons to be conscious about honoring others. I would love to hear your ideas so please contribute your thoughts.

1) When you honor, you receive honor.

This seems pretty simple. But does this mean that you have to always obey others and risk being taken advantage of? I don’t believe it’s about blindly doing what others tell you to do. I believe it’s more about how you go about interacting with others. How do you choose to get others’ opinions? How do you choose to say no? Can you honor the person when you deliver bad news?

2) It creates a dynamic culture that is healthier and more productive.

When you start to honor others as the leader, you begin to role model the behaviors you desire to see in the organizations you lead. You start to create a culture where your employees treat others with value. People work harder when they feel valued, seen, heard and acknowledged.

3) Honoring others plants the seed for finding greater meaning and purpose in your work.

Having the privilege and honor of coaching senior leaders, when asked how they find meaning and purpose, I am beginning to see a theme emerge. Helping others. Mentoring. Developing. It is very ‘others-focused.’ I wonder if starting to ‘honor others’ which is ‘others-focused’ may help accelerate finding greater purpose and meaning not only in work, but in life. It has for me.

In honor of the 4708 year history of the Chinese and the wisdom and experience the world has gained as a result, Gong Xi Fa Cai!!

Have a prosperous and blessed year!