The Counter-Intuitiveness of Leading with Kindness

Monday, July 7th, 2008

       Most of us can conjure images of the nice guy who exudes selflessness and warmth. But if one were to exclusively focus on those attributes apart from the service to which these traits may be put, the essence of a kind leader would be lost. In the absence of any clear functional goals, these niceties simply form a nebula of good feelings: a comfortable but directionless air. That may be the right tonic for a cocktail party, but not one that suits personal development and performance.

      The purpose of kind leadership isn’t to protect or shelter employees from hard decisions, troublesome issues or setbacks but to inspire trial, perseverance and personal growth. Kind leaders treat others like adults, and not as charity cases or dependents. And while there are ample pockets of levity and fun, the real mission of a true leader is to build a whole, fully functioning person who takes responsibility for his or her actions and values the welfare of the entire group. Kind leadership, then, isn’t for the faint hearted who shun conflict or bury bad news in order to preserve a swell of fellow feeling. It isn’t for those who mistake camaraderie for productive community action. Kindness makes others stronger; paternalism weakens. Kindness builds a reservoir of resilience and self confidence, enabling people to think big and to believe in what they are capable of accomplishing.

      The goal of kindness is to forge a mental toughness in others so that they can work and thrive independently and, in turn, foster in others the same leadership qualities to which they once were beneficiaries.

      There is nothing perverted about expecting the best from people, of challenging their capabilities, and pushing for and expecting improvements in all aspects of their life. Fortunately, these expectations seldom need to be conveyed intrusively if a leader has seriously practiced and refined the art of leadership: the beauty of quality leadership is that apart from the need for occasional direct instruction and guidance, much of it rubs off on others simply by being an exemplar model of leadership – and having astute observers as students. We have found that good leadership is particularly infectious when the leader has a sufficient supply of what might most accurately be called “fascination.”

      Superb leaders are interested in great many things they are interesting, life-giving, life-affirming people because they are interested and curious people. They are consummate learners whose taste for the truth and relentless search for better ways readily engage the intellects of others. Indeed, these pursuits are the very touchstones of enterprise. 

     In a way, kind leaders are selfish since they revel and find satisfaction in the successes of others. They realize that the successful leader helps others to become successful. But people are not going to naturally risk failure or exert themselves to exhaustion unless the leader can convince that the path ahead is both relatively safe and rewarding. For that, you need warmth – you need tolerance – you need humor, but you also need to provide the periodic assist of a strategic push or subtle (and, at times, not-so-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 – both together are just right.


Michael O’Malley

Coauthor “Leading with Kindness”