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A Simple Gesture of Respect

Recently I read an article that touched my heart. It was about a simple gesture of respect that turned a potential insurrection into a peaceful withdrawal. It served to remind me that respect in all stations of life comes in many forms. It does not require the same language nor the same cultural background. What it does require is an understanding of the human heart and human needs.

It reminded me once again that the primary atom of leadership, is a based on a nucleus of respect.

Adapted from an article in the New Yorker 17 Jan 2005: Battle Lessons by Dan Baum

In April of 2003 a group of American soldiers walked down the road in Nadjaf towards the holiest Shia mosque in all of Iraq. Their intention was to liberate the city. However, Iraqi agitators had spread the lie that these American troops were going to seize the mosque and take the cleric prisoner.

Within minutes hundreds of Iraqis began pouring out of buildings and doorways on either side of the troops on the road to the mosque.  They pressed in on the troops – shaking their fists and screaming.  Their rage was palpable – visceral and it was closing in on the troops.

Seeing the danger, an American officer stepped through the crowd.  He raised a rifle over his head and turned the barrel intentionally to the ground as he said to his men, “Smile.”  Then he added, “Take a knee.”  It was an old sports term that meant kneel.

The soldiers looked at him as if he was crazy. And then slowly, one by one, their bulky 60 to 100 pound back packs swaying on their backs, they went down on one knee their rifles pointing to the ground, before the enraged crowd.

A hush quickly fell over the crowd and the anger dissolved.  The officer ordered his men to retreat.  They quietly turned and slowly walked back to where the officer directed them. With his men out of danger, the officer turned to the crowd and bowed his head in acknowledgment.

Months later the officer, Lt Colonel Hughes was asked by a reporter how he knew what to do, and was he trained to do that, and was it specific to the Iraqs – this holding the rifle down and taking a knee?

Hughes was perplexed, he said it could have turned into an uprising.  But what it really needed he said, “was a gesture of respect”.

It seems to me that at the heart of this story is a lesson in leadership. In so many of our daily dealings with people what is really needed is a simple gesture of respect. For maybe the rope that binds us as human beings is made of many strands of various gestures of respect woven over time.

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