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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

Kindness as a Leadership Imperative

February 1, 2016

By Michael O'Malley

In 2008, my co-author (William Baker) and I published Leading with Kindness: How Good People Consistently Get Superior Results (AMACOM), a book on the efficacy of "kind leadership," later made into a PBS documentary. The fact that since that publication, kindness as a leadership imperative has gained footing has been pleasantly surprising. After all, kindness is not the first word many of us associate with business leaders, as images of our industrial past are still fresh. As the machines heated, spun, milled, and bore, managerial overlords paced factory floors counting the output and pressing employees to produce more and more. This was not the place for weak-kneed supervisors and executives. The goal was to keep production lines efficiently moving by any means necessary.

Today, the unremitting pressure for productivity from the forces of fierce competition in the global marketplace continues. New, unforeseen market entrants can suddenly emerge from anywhere in the world with a new technology, better business model, or improved product to exploit a company's weaknesses and rob it of customers. Meanwhile, traditional competitors are always lying in wait for a missed order, a slip in quality, or a lapse in service. The margin of error is thin, and befuddled, wishy-washy executives who can't manage to the numbers are expendable. In this new age of competitiveness, too many leaders still believe they must be uncompromisingly and dispassionately focused on productivity gains and wealth creation for shareholders. Getting people to do their jobs as expeditiously as they can, without caring too deeply about their burdens, has become a prized leadership trait of our modern era.

There is another way, and it involves building a culture of kindness organizationwide. Kind leaders give people room to breathe, to grow, and to contribute. They request a special kind of engagement, inviting employees to bring along their whole selves and abilities when they come to work.

The Power of Kindness

The purpose of kind leadership is to make others stronger and build a reservoir of resilience and self-confidence, enabling people to think big and to believe in what they are capable of accomplishing. Kind leaders do not shun conflict, bury bad news, or protect or shelter employees from hard decisions, troublesome issues, or setbacks. Rather, kind leaders treat others like adults and seek to inspire perseverance and personal growth. The goal of kind leadership is to forge a mental toughness in others so they can work and thrive independently and together for the good of the organization.

Fortunately, these expectations seldom need to be conveyed intrusively if a leader has seriously practiced and refined the art of kind leadership. Apart from the need for occasional direct instruction and guidance, much of kind leadership rubs off on others simply by example and having astute observers as students. Consider the mass uprising several years ago of employees at Market Basket, a supermarket chain in the Northeast, when beloved Chief Executive Arthur T. DeMoulas was sacked in a family coup. Twenty-five thousand employees walked off the job in protest until the family-heavy board reinstated "Arthur T." The reason for the workers' affection and dedication to the company is nicely summarized by one employee, referring to "Artie," saying: "He wants us all to have a better life."

Kindness in Higher Education

Some of the most convincing examples of kind leadership come from within academia. Of the 25 leaders we interviewed for Leading with Kindness, four had academic affiliations:

  • Richard Levin, a former president of Yale University, is now CEO of Coursera.
  • Daniel Richie was the chancellor and chairman of the board at the University of Denver, was formerly CEO of Westinghouse Broadcasting, and, more recently, was chairman and CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
  • Joseph Polisi was, and remains, president of the Juilliard School.
  • John Pepper, who served as chairman of The Walt Disney Company, was formerly the CEO of Procter & Gamble, vice president of finance and administration at Yale University, and senior fellow of the Yale Corporation.

Daniel Richie maintains that organizations hire for character, and that adherence to ethical principles is instrumental to organizational effectiveness. While certainly not always the case, the academic environment can bring out the best in people. As diverse, decentralized, multi-stakeholder institutions populated with independent-minded staff and faculty, consensus-building is an essential talent for agreeable, unfettered, organizational action. This imperative tends to favor kind leaders who generally display the behaviors critical to organizational progress. Among those behaviors:

Speak the truth, and listen to others. Institutions of higher education are, after all, dedicated to making honest portrayals of information based on the known facts and ensuring that diverse points of view have been incorporated into the decision-making process. Therefore, kind leaders make sure that others are heard, not as a formality, but as a means of making intelligent decisions. While CEO of Procter & Gamble, John Pepper notes that people would call each other out when avoiding tough issues and evasively speaking half-truths by saying: "There is a moose on the table." If you imagine the bobbing and ducking required to communicate while a moose is standing in the middle of a conference table, you get the feel for how cumbersome and ineffective partial exchanges can be, and how intellectual honesty, open dialogue, and straightforward two-way conversations can facilitate discussion and improve decisionmaking.

Widen the circle. Executives who enter academia from the corporate world and think they can steamroll decisions through do not last long. The cultures in higher education have little tolerance for non-participatory management styles. In contrast, Joseph Polisi uses a participatory process he calls widening the circle. Several years ago when Juilliard wanted to add jazz to its curriculum, Polisi first needed the support of the trustees to ensure adequate logistical and financial assistance. Next, he required the input and allegiance of faculty who would be directly affected by the programmatic changes, such as the trumpet department. Finally, he needed the implicit acceptance of the organization following the general announcement of the new program, which was partly obtained by remaining open to suggestions from organizational members and making adjustments as needed as the program unfolded. By the time the program was introduced, all stakeholder groups had been given ample opportunity to weigh in on the new program and to shape it accordingly.

Engage intellectual capacities. In essence, Polisi asked everyone to be a part of the solution, something William Baker and I call percolation effects, a term we coined after speaking with then Yale President Richard Levin. Levin not only was a master at building universitywide consensus, but he also was skilled at getting the entire university intellectually engaged in solutions. For example, once Yale decided it wanted to be an international university, Levin spread his vison throughout the university through personal visits and internal communications and asked for ideas about what that would mean to each school and department. As a result, ideas began to percolate up through the ranks until a well-developed definition of a global university formed. For example, admissions suggested that foreign students be accepted based on the same financial criteria as domestic students in order to encourage foreign enrollment. At the time Yale launched this initiative, foreign enrollment was at 2 percent. Today foreign enrollment stands at 11 percent of the undergraduate student body. Actions that regard the opinions of others only make sense when the leader holds a fundamental belief that everyone is capable of generating solutions and has something to offer to the discussion.

Six Kind Attributes

Let's be clear: To be a "kind" leader is not to imply that someone should be a pushover or a sucker. A kind leader is not a permissive person whose underlings run wild. Nor is a kind leader afraid to call out people who are underperforming. One of the unkindest things a leader can do is cover for poor performance with faint praise or by avoiding the issue altogether. Absolutely no good comes from acquiescing to performance that falls below expectations. Kindness, therefore, isn't the same as weakness or indecisiveness. Kindness means embracing the proven power of the following six attributes.

  1. Compassion: staying in touch with, being empathic to, and showing concern for the everyday challenges and problems of your employees. The smartest managers realize that their employees come to them as complete people, with unique strengths and weaknesses. While treating everybody like they came out of a cookie cutter may be easier from a management standpoint, in the long run, your employees will appreciate your investment of time and energy in getting to know them as individuals. Manage people as they are, not as you wish they were, and you have a shot at making them stronger and making your organization better at the same time.
  2. Integrity: reliably, consistently, and predictably acting on ethical values and keeping promises and confidences. This quality is foremost in creating a safe and smooth-running work environment for everyone. When you respond with integrity to situations, you also respond with consistency. That means that not only will your employees know what to expect and what standards they themselves will be held to, but they'll also be able to take on more independence by making the calls that you yourself would make. That makes for a faster, more seamless decision-making process across your organization.
  3. Gratitude: appreciating others for their contributions to the enterprise and recognizing that one's own life story includes benefiting from the goodwill and sacrifices of others. While it may still be a tough economy, people still have a choice when it comes to where they spend their working days. If you recognize this fact by treating people like volunteers rather than as drones or drudges, you'll be rewarded with greater productivity and a better working atmosphere. When people are given respect and independence, they take on more tasks, think more creatively, and get things done more quickly.
  4. Authenticity: being sincere and honest about yourself and behaving in ways that reflect your true beliefs, feelings, and values. If your idea of getting ahead is by playing to the crowd and turning yourself into whatever your superiors or your employees want you to be, you might get some short-term traction, but long-term success will elude you. People know when you're not being true to yourself, and this can cost you respect. The most effective source of both personal drive and charisma is when you find those authentic points of connection between your work and who you are in the world.
  5. Humility: tempering optimism with realism, accepting responsibility for failures, and understanding that one isn't the sole reservoir of all knowledge and truth but that there is always more to learn from others. Humility isn't pretending you are less than you are. Being humble means knowing your true strengths and weaknesses as a worker and as a leader and working toward continuous improvement. Leaders who don't acknowledge those areas where they have some learning to do are the quickest to make rash decisions, which are almost always bad ones. By staying humble and real, you stay smart.
  6. Humor: tapping the power of laughter to maintain calm, diminish anxiety, bolster group cohesion, and remind yourself and others that your lives are supposed to be playful and creative, not weighed down by social gravitas and the presumed seriousness of everything. Of all the traits to adopt, this one is the easiest and the hardest. While humor isn't easy to define, when you encounter challenges, awkward moments, and difficult days, taking time to find the humor in the situation, both for yourself and for those around you, may provide the relief you need to find a sure path forward.

Choosing Kindness

The premises of operational precision, rigorous financial oversight, and market wariness that belie organizational success and personal and professional development often lead in an unpromising direction: back to the lords of the shop floor. Far too often, today's leaders still mistake the need for precision with the need for managerial control, the need for oversight with the need for corporate autocracy, and the need for vigilance with the need for icy objectivity and personal detachment. When we conclude that what every business needs is a leader who is calculative and single-minded in safeguarding the financial purposes of the enterprise, we risk being competitive to the point of being overbearingly aggressive and belligerent.

In contrast, kind leaders revel and find satisfaction in the successes of others. They realize that the successful leader helps others become successful. Even so, people will not risk failure or exert themselves to exhaustion unless their leader can convince them that the path ahead is both relatively safe and rewarding. For that, leaders need warmth, patience, and humor. They also need to provide the periodic assist of a strategic push or subtle prompt. Followers require both the safety of goodwill and the exhortations of progress in order to excel. Neither alone will do. One is too hard, and one is too soft, but both together provide the right mix.

While we may still have a long way to go before universal decency prevails within management, kind leadership provides a new model consonant with these times of continued stiff competition and our human nature and need to be valued and respected. Leaders who want the best for their organizations and their people must choose to pursue the high aims of success and productivity with kindness, not irrespective of it.

Michael O'Malley is senior vice president and higher education compensation practice leader for Sibson Consulting, New York City. E-mail: