Kindness for Enhanced Leadership
A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots
spring up and make new trees. - Amelia Earheart
Until recently for university students studying business, kindness was perceived as the least essential quality in a leader1. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to shift perspectives and kindness is now understood to be vitally important if leaders are to be successful2&3.
Leaders need to achieve desired results whilst minimising bad outcomes. These tend to be defined by quantitative data, such as sales figures, share prices, projects completed successfully, or votes gained. The ability to achieve these hard quantitative results depends on a leader’s ability to achieve, much more difficult-to-measure, soft qualitative outcomes/results.
Research reveals successful leaders have followers who feel purposeful, important and valued4,5&6. The followers also feel they belong to their team, are proud to be members and feel loyal to the team and its leader7,8&9. Furthermore, successful leaders make the people they lead feel committed to, and motivated about, the goals of the group, as well as feel safe within the group10&11.
Leaders operating in high-stakes and dangerous situations are particularly aware of how achieving the desired quantitative outcomes depends on realising the softer, qualitative outcomes first. Simon Frusher, a former officer in the British Army and now a vice president at the investment bank Morgan Stanley, states
“The quality of the relationships, the level of trust and the strength of the bond between people are important because they determine how well people work together. In tough situations you need to be able to work quickly and seamlessly together and for that, everybody needs to trust and care for each other. We all have to know that we have each other’s back, and that we are going all out together. It is this espirit de corps, this togetherness, this kinship that is essential for operational efficiency and success. And that is based on relationships you build through spending time with your guys, humour, respect and caring for each other. As a leader you have to know your guys and care for them”.
Kindness in a leader is a catalyst for creating conditions for optimal performance. As a leader, when you are kind you signal that you are kin - that you are family. You demonstrate that the needs and success of those you lead are as important, or more important, than your own. As Simon Senek demonstrates in Leaders Eat Last successful leaders put their followers first. When people understand their leader truly cares, several things happen. Firstly, a powerful bond is created between follower and leader, because basic human needs for feeling safe, valued, and purposeful are met. This leads people to be intrinsically motivated to give the very best of themselves. Secondly, people feel they belong, and tribal instincts are activated, which engenders a strong commitment to the group or team and its goals. Thirdly, there is greater resilience, because the negative impact of distressing emotions on performance is minimised as people are better able to acknowledge, contain, make sense of, share, process and resolve emotional distress. Kindness therefore makes a group tougher and stronger. Fourthly, followers are kinder among themselves amplifying the beneficial effects of a leader’s kindness among the group.
Being kind as a leader is more than asking people in a perfunctory way “how do you feel?”. You have got to genuinely care. You genuinely care by being committed to promoting the wellbeing of those you lead and preventing or reducing their suffering. This means understanding what people want and need, and communicating through language and actions that you want the best for them - that you want them, as individuals, to succeed and that you are there for them. It also entails being transparent and honest, taking responsibility for the welfare of your people and if necessary, taking what might be tough and difficult action to ensure it.
When leaders fail, the quality of the bond, the depth of the trust, and the strength of the connection between leader and followers weakens. Followers reserve some, or a lot, of their intellectual and emotional capital in order to look out for themselves. Additionally, the ambitions and motives of the leader and followers can slip out of alignment - and performance, particularly in challenging situations, becomes suboptimal.
When leaders prioritise kindness towards all of their followers, like metal ions aligning when placed in a magnetic field, leaders and followers become aligned in their desire and determination to succeed together. People give their utmost and bring all of their strengths, experiences, commitment and humanity to bear in pursuit of the common goals. Kindness fuels extraordinary commitment and performance, as leaders benefit from the undiluted and collective, intellectual, creative, emotional and physical resources of their followers. Kindness is important if leaders are to be successful2&3,and many business schools are now starting to teach this12.
1 Holt, S., & Marques, J. (2012). Empathy in leadership: Appropriate or misplaced? An empirical study on a topic that is asking for attention. Journal of business ethics, 105(1), 95-105. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0951-5
2 Baker, W. F., & O'Malley, M. (2008). Leading with kindness: How good people consistently get superior results. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn.
3 Haskins, G., Thomas, M., & Johri, L. (Eds.). (2018). Kindness in Leadership. New York: Routledge.
4 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Good business: Leadership, flow, and the making of meaning. Penguin.
5 Mai, R. P., & Akerson, A. (2003). The leader as communicator: Strategies and tactics to build loyalty, focus effort, and spark creativity. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn.
6 Sullivan, E. J., & Garland, G. (2010). Practical leadership and management in nursing. London: Pearson Education.
7 Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. E. (2006). Transformational leadership. Psychology Press.
8 Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Press.
9 Maddock, S. (2012). Public leadership: motivated by values not bonuses. International Journal of Leadership in Public Services. doi: 10.1108/17479881211279986
10 Riggio, R. E., & Reichard, R. J. (2008). The emotional and social intelligences of effective leadership. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(2), 169-185. doi: 10.1108/02683940810850808
11 Palmer, B., Walls, M., Burgess, Z., & Stough, C. (2001). Emotional intelligence and effective leadership. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 22(1), 5-10. doi: 10.1108/01437730110380174
12 Cohen, M. A. (2012). Empathy in business ethics education. Journal of business ethics education, 9, 359-375. doi: 10.5840/jbee2012918