The Power of Kindness

Monday, July 7th, 2008

While people generally recognize that a leader’s emotional intelligence factors into that person’s leadership style, most are reluctant to judge it as being as important as analytical ability, decision-making skills, or proficiency in execution. Such emotions as compassion, empathy, and kindness are often dismissed as unquantifiable in their impact on organizations or are mistaken for weakness. Yet, research in neuroscience and social sciences clearly reveals the physiological and cultural basis of emotional resonance in social networks and its measurable effects on both individual and group performance.

Great leaders have always relied on emotion to get things done: Managers inspire employees to collaborate, coaches rally players to win games, and politicians persuade voters to elect them. But the “do-as-I-say” leadership model of 20th-century business organizations or the Dickensian factory owner of the 19th-century still linger in our collective consciousness.

However, business scholars and practitioners alike know that performance is maximized when people feel supported and are motivated through kindness. At Columbia Business School, our Program on Social Intelligence is a direct response to ever-changing business demands, and it addresses many of the same leadership dimensions that authors Bill Baker and Michael O’Malley examine in “Leading with Kindness: How Good People Consistently Get Superior Results.”  Today’s lightning-fast business environment demands job candidates who can step into senior management roles in five to eight years, often in decentralized and constantly transforming enterprises, in relationship-based professions like investment banking and consulting, and in dynamic and diverse communities. In such organizations, leadership success is often defined in interpersonal terms: Knowing how and when to collaborate or command, how to lead and develop subordinates, or how to manage and empower networks.

Traditional models of leadership have favored the technical over the emotional dimension of leadership. Ironically, as technology grows geometrically more powerful and machines manage more of the analytics, our leaders must become more human, more humane. To excel today, business leaders must master both quantitative skills such as finance, statistics, and accounting, and those less easily quantified, like communications, people development, and team-building.

As Baker and O’Malley rightly point out, the ability to leverage one’s kindness is not a soft skill. On the contrary, it is a no-nonsense approach to business that can return hard dividends in organizational effectiveness and business performance. For the beginner “Leading with Kindness…”is a good first lesson. For the seasoned leader, it is a gentle and often entertaining reminder that there is no time like the present for mastering kindness.


Glenn Hubbard
Dean of Finance and Economics
Columbia Business School
New York City