Why kindness is both essential and irrelevant to modern leadership?

Some weeks ago there was a lively debate on the Harvard Business Review LinkedIn group as to whether people felt kindness was an important attribute of leadership. The debate drew some varied reactions, including the following comments:-

  • ’In our society, it appears that leadership has little to do with kindness or consideration for the average employee. It is all about the bottom line’
  • ‘Kindness isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind in business’
  • ‘Kindness has been a trait in every single inspirational leader I have met or worked for’
  • ‘To be successful a leader must be able to access both kind and ruthless – and neither of them should likely be too dominant’
  • ‘I recently spoke with a senior executive who holds the view that kindness in business is irrelevant’

Since ‘choosing to be kind’ is the ninth habit for inspiring trust in my forthcoming book, ‘The Trusted Executive’, I was intrigued by this discussion. In my early career as a leader, kindness was not a word that I came across on my MBA or on the various corporate leadership programmes I attended. On the contrary, I was tutored to be tough-minded, ruthlessly analytical and focussed upon the performance outcome alone. This attitude constantly jarred with my underlying humanity, but you learnt to get on with it.

kindness leadership

However, the times may be changing. Firstly, as IPSOS Mori polls reveal, deference to traditional authority figures is collapsing and, secondly, we are beginning to become alienated from businesses that exist simply as detached, myopic, profit-making machines. How does this influence the topic of kindness in leadership? Well, in the past we could rely upon authority, ie. a position and a job title, to get things done because our authority demanded the trust of others. Now we live in a business world where trust must increasingly be built through different means and one of those means is the ability to show benevolence to others; to be kind to them. Similarly, when we lived in a world where the sole purpose of business was generating profit for the owners then we did not necessarily expect them to be kind to their wider stakeholders. Now that we are developing a wider social conscious in business then with that will come an expectation of kindness. But, of course, you can never use kindness as your unique selling point (USP) because the moment you do so, it ceases to be human kindness and becomes just another institutionalised cog in the machine.

Let me give you an example. Last January, Chiltern trains suffered a 350,000 tonne landslip which closed the line between Leamington Spa and Banbury for six weeks. When the line re-opened, regular users like myself received due compensation via reduced fares for a period of time – that was an act of good customer service. It was a logical exchange between customer and supplier. The first time I used the line again I was sat in the carriage when the driver came on the intercom to apologise for the closure. What’s more, he went on to offer every passenger on the train a free cup of coffee! The moment he made that offer I looked around the carriage and realised everyone was smiling. In fact, I am sure a couple of people hugged each other! This emotional contagion was because we had just experienced an act of spontaneous kindness and not an act of good customer service. It was an emotional exchange between a person and a person. For a moment, in the midst of this machine to machine world, it felt like someone cared. Someone actually cared!

The amazing power of kindness as a leadership or organisational habit is that it costs very little and yet its impact is felt very deeply. Kindness is like a purple dye; all it takes is one drop and the whole environment suddenly changes colour. Yet the paradox of kindness in leadership is that the moment you try to institutionalise it, the purple disappears. Kindness refuses to be tamed and controlled by the will of the powers that be. Therefore, the challenge is to create the conditions in which it is most likely to appear of its own accord. The conditions in which that germ of humanity that exists in all of us is kindled, encouraged and allowed to prosper. So tomorrow commit to your random act of kindness (RAK); your tiny noticeable thing (TNT). Deliver your RAKs and your TNTs in the full knowledge that kindness is essential to modern leadership, yet needs to be made totally irrelevant to it at the same time.

John will be discussing more about kindness in leadership in his forthcoming book, ‘The Trusted Executive: Nine leadership habits that inspire results, relationships and reputation’. You can pre-order now via Amazon.

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