The Golden Rule Isn’t

The Golden Rule Isn’t

with 1 Comment

In late September of 2015 I found myself in opposition to Pope Francis. Don’t get me wrong; I’m crazy about this guy, the first pope I ever really loved, let alone paid much attention to. He’s enthusiastic, warm, authentic and humble, all attributes of leadership that I espouse in my doctrine for highly-evolved leadership. Pope Francis has this engaging wink that often accompanies a thumbs-up sign, an endearing display of optimism that I find irresistible. But all of a sudden I’m at odds with the pope, because he invokes the Golden Rule, imploring leaders and lawmakers in the U.S. to follow it (in that case with regards to establishing immigration practices and laws). I, on the other hand, am not a big fan of the Golden Rule.

At first glance it sure sounds good: do unto others and you would have them do unto you. First of all, it’s GOLDEN and it just can’t get much better than that. Gold implies awesomeness, as you got the Gold Standard, the Golden Globes, the Golden State, and the place that set the bar for French fries, the Golden Arches. Even the name Golden Corral might have inspired you to try the buffet – once.

The Golden Rule has been around FOREVER, with its origins found in many ancient cultures, like Egyptian, Greek and Chinese. A variant is even found in the Bible, book of Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yeesh, first the Pope and now the bible! I’m probably not winning any popularity contests at the moment. But don’t start hurling your tomatoes, yet.

My position can be explained through observing the behavior of kids, including my own, whose innocence and authenticity provide wonderful insights into the human condition. More specifically, I’m referring to the oppositional behaviors and attitudes that seem so prevalent and natural in youngsters that provide a key insight into the human condition.

What does it mean when a parent says “don’t eat that ice cream off the floor”, only to have their child invoke the 10-second rule and rescue their cookies-and-cream from the fate of the kitchen sink? And what does it mean when the boss suggests that lowering a price to a prospective customer will seal the deal, and the employee decides to take another whack at articulating the value proposition?

It means that oppositional behavior is the normal state of being, and that the best ideas are people’s own. And it means that we don’t outgrow this condition as adults.

As how the desire for autonomy motivation – that delightful force that drives behavior – we want to self-govern, or be self-directed. And it’s pervasive in the human species, residing right atop the crest of the bell curve on the chart of human traits. Funny how the therapy industry has labeled a condition known as ODD, or oppositional defiance disorder, as a legitimate excuse to bill third party payers when it’s so dang natural and statistically normal!

So what does all this have to do with the Golden Rule? The Golden Rule assumes that others want for themselves what you want for yourself. Wrong. Because people are oppositional and crave autonomy, they want to be treated according to their own desires. The Even Better Than Golden Rule  is “treat others the way THEY want to be treated!” Note the exclamation point.

Of course, treating others this way necessitates actually getting to know them, asking questions and caring enough about them to listen and take them seriously. (Remember, my core tenet of life is to not take YOURSELF so seriously. Taking others seriously is entirely another matter.)

This speaks to the value of unsolicited advice, which I submit is of most often of no value. Admittedly, there are times when unsolicited advice is called for. Like, “Joe, grab the fire extinguisher!”, or “Betty, you might want somebody to look at that grapefruit-sized lump on your shoulder.” Otherwise, unsolicited advice is much more about the advice giver seeking validation in the way they see the world, rather than being of service to others. We love to be right.

If you want to really engage people in moving forward, consider ways of helping them think better and deriving solutions and ideas of their own making. And if you want to build trust, loyalty and better relationships anywhere in your life, including work, treat people the way they want to be treated.


Howie Milstein