Expert Commentary

Kindness in Leadership

It seems so easy to say: be kind! But, life is hard. Change is hard. And, since life keeps changing, that makes leadership very hard.


Leadership at All Levels
April 2017

In a hard world, it is difficult for us to take the time to be kind. The things we all agree need to change to make things better, for example, the economy, are not easy to change. It seems that this causes us to want to rush everything else. Hurry, hurry! Maybe if we get everything else done faster, it might balance out the recovery's pace. If we can just move faster, maybe we can make up for lost time. Have we forgotten, in all the rush, to just be nice?

Kindness can't be rushed. To be kind, we need both emotional flexibility and strength. We have to be strong enough to resist that cultural urge to rush ourselves and others. It takes someone very strong to consistently assume the best of others. Flexibility can't be beat for reacting to a quickly changing environment with grace. Gaining strength takes time. Learning to be flexible takes time. If you don't believe me, try a yoga class! Since both of these traits are invaluable in applying kindness to your actions, being "in a hurry" isn't helpful. Simply stated: kindness is a discipline; maybe it's even a lost art. My mom taught me this—I bet yours did, too.

Is this a behavior that we develop, define, and practice? Do we go to school to learn kindness? Have we read books, watched training DVDs? Did you download a podcast recently about how to be a kinder manager? I doubt it. The last time we heard about kindness in that way, we were hearing about a thousand points of light. Isn't kindness just something we expect in an epitaph? "She was kind; she was a gentle soul. May she rest in peace."

Cultivating Kindness

Assuming we agree that kindness is a virtue worth pursuing in this life, even if we are the big boss, how do we cultivate it? What can we do to be better right now? Is real kindness possible along with profit and efficiency? We all know what kindness looks like. It's something we enjoy in others and talk about, and there are even bumper stickers with miniature philosophies about it. We think of it as something to do at home, though, or at church. But, do we even dare to expect kindness at work?

How difficult is it to practice the behavior ourselves, especially at work? Is it, in fact, something that we can consciously develop, model, and consistently apply? Yes, we can. And we can even make money and still have a kindness philosophy.

Learning To Be K.I.N.D.

Let's use K.I.N.D. as an acronym to help us remember.

"K" is for kind: Just remembering the word helps. Breathe, think, and consider treating everyone the way you would a newcomer, the elderly, or a child. Somehow we're nicer to strangers and babies and give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's be generous at work, too. Why not assume the best?

"I" is for instinct: We cannot change our first and most basic instinct—to survive at all costs. We can guide the instinct. Humans are herd animals. The survival of the herd is imperative to our own survival. This is the correct mental posture for kindness. We should take care of each other. A great example is what happens in natural disasters. Most humans help their neighbor in need, and we are all indignant when the few take advantage by looting and other heinous behavior when taking advantage of those in peril. The natural herd instinct teaches us that the best leader is the one who will sacrifice their own life or situation for that of their followers. The best coach will carry the water to their team.

"N" is for nurture: Nurturing is a natural instinct. Our world is about to change. The baby boomers are going to be gone from the workplace very soon. Nurturing of the new folks in the workplace will be a part of every manager's life. So, as a kind leader, you'll need to nurture those young minds in a way that will be completely foreign to most of us baby boomers and generation Xers.

There is no need to repeat the mantras and methods that are so abundant on the topic of generational differences. The point here is that being kind and nurturing to everyone is the first step to tapping all the wonderful potential that they have. All the communication and understanding of the generational differences will go right out the door if kindness is not part of the mix.

"D" is for dare to trust: Letting go of the reins is tough. In difficult times, the usual management style is to hold tighter, get stricter, and allow less freedom. This is backward. In hard times, people do want security but not a noose. In fact, the freedoms and flexibility that most humans crave, and which the newer generations especially need, are often a kindness that management can show to employees with no direct cost to the company.

We measure return on investment in so many ways that we begin to think that everything has to be measured in dollars and cents. That works with most things in business, but some things cannot be measured in that way. Long-term results take long-term strategies, and some of those cause change to come in millimeters, or in pennies, if you will.

Trust builds slowly. It builds teams an inch at a time. And, fortunately, it's a solution that doesn't break the bank. Most employees want to do a good job. Maybe it's tough to let go because we've been burned by the small percentage that have taken advantage. We want tight reins to avoid that pain again because it feels personal when that happens. In the end, though, that pulls us in the wrong direction. To get the horse to move left, you push with your right leg. It is not instinctive, but it works.

When you show kindness, you earn trust. Take the dare.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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