What traits make a brilliant leader? Intelligence, decisiveness, confidence, creativity, vision? How about all of those and a bit of je ne sais quoi thrown in.
Funny, while kindness is a highly valued trait in our personal lives (who doesn’t want a kind partner, or parents?), not many people immediately associate kindness with great leadership – why is that?
Rosie Campbell is professor of politics and director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. She believes that when we look for leaders all too often we fall back on stereotypes that emphasise “confidence and charisma over the delivery of results”.
She references Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s excellent 2019 book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? In it, the author points out that although men make up the majority of leaders, they underperform when compared with women in that position. “Most organisations equate leadership potential with a handful of destructive personality traits, like overconfidence and narcissism. Those traits may help someone get selected for a leadership role, but they backfire once the person has the job. When competent women – and men who don't fit the stereotype – are unfairly overlooked, we all suffer the consequences. The result is a deeply flawed system that rewards arrogance rather than humility, and loudness rather than wisdom,” reads the book’s introductory blurb.
“We are attracted to overconfidence and self-promotion because we mistake these characteristics for competence. Kindness isn’t a word we typically associate with competence, but maybe it should be,” argues Campbell.
That idea is gaining traction. The ways in which female leaders worldwide have dealt with coronavirus has been hailed as a victory for empathy and two-fingers-up to the traditional (and overarchingly white and male) style of leadership we have come to accept.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern is New Zealand’s most popular leader in 100 years thanks to her pandemic response. The calm, confident, and careful way Angela Merkel communicated during coronavirus has seen the German chancellor achieve her highest approval rating since 2017. The Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg’s press conference to answer children’s questions about the virus was praised as another example of empathetic and effective female leadership.
This isn’t to say only women can be kind leaders.
The issue isn’t about “men and women per se, but gendered leadership styles”, says Campbell. She cites the example of Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro, who claimed that Brazilians are so tough they are immune to the virus, “typifying a hyper-masculine response where leaders wish to promote an image of invulnerability”. Then there was Boris Johnson shaking hands in hospitals despite advice not to and US president Donald Trump’s many wild claims, including the rather arrogant assertion back in April that US churches would all be full by Easter – now the country’s death toll exceeds 96,0000.
Campbell continues: “This is about the deliberate adoption of an approach rather than biology. Women and men can both lead the way by leading with compassion and kindness.” She’s right, but if there is a kindness revolution afoot, it’s women who are leading the way.
And it’s not just relevant at government level. Kindness is catching – search Twitter for the hashtag #BeKind and you’ll turn up pages and pages of results. Just as I was writing this story, I received an email notification for a newsletter I subscribe to (from the excellent Harriet Minter) where the subject line was “A Kinder Week”, and of course the theme of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek for 2020 has been kindness.
You could say kindness is having a moment.
Before we go further, let’s establish exactly what we mean when we talk about kindness at work. It’s not bringing in baked goods to feed the office or letting your team head off half an hour early on a Friday (although those things help). Rather, kindness means being generous with your time and knowledge. It means being considerate of how others are feeling, or how decisions will impact them. It also means showing empathy.
Leading businesswoman Mel Exon is a former creative agency lead (as well as former managing director of BBH and ex CEO of Sunshine). She says the meaning of the word needs reclaiming: “Kindness is so often perceived as a ‘soft’ measure. It’s often nodded at and paid lip service to, but never makes it on to a boardroom agenda – no doubt because its impact on the bottom line is more indirect and intangible…At some level, perhaps kindness at work is something like applied empathy; the absence of which damages a company, the presence of which helps a company become extraordinary.”
Professor Rosie Campbell agrees: “Kindness isn’t discussed much in the research on leadership, but a lot of research does consider the role of empathetic leaders using terms such as ‘servant leadership' and ‘ethical leadership’ – terms that we might associate with the word kindness.”
She continues: “Servant leaders are driven by the desire to serve others and their focus is on empowering colleagues and the related term ‘transformational’ leadership is used to describe leadership styles that focus on the needs of others and the organisation ahead of their own. Leadership styles that are collaborative and focused on relationships and the development of colleagues rather than self-promotion tend to produce more engaged and productive teams. Kindness and humility are associated traits – humility requires listening and a desire to hear and respond to feedback, which leads us to a kinder and more generous approach to our relationships with others.
“Humble leaders can hear criticism and respond to it, they listen to experts deeply and are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. This kind of leadership stands in stark opposition to a hyper-masculine leadership style that promotes the individual, emphasises the invulnerability and superiority of the leader, undermines collective action as the leader seeks credit for all success and tries to shift the blame for failure, making speaking truth to power difficult or dangerous.
“Women and men can adopt both transaction and transformative leadership styles, but women more often adopt the latter.”
We know happy workers who feel valued work harder and better, one extensive study into happiness and productivity found that workers are 13% more productive when happy, so does being kind pay dividends?
Mel Exon is emphatic on this point: “We knew from years of experience that happier people have bigger, better ideas and without those ideas we were nothing. Of course, there are other factors that drive motivation in combination with kindness – purpose, autonomy, mastery and belonging in particular – but I knew leading with kindness consistently was good for the company and it was good for me too.”
She gives a first-hand example from a previous workplace: “We knew we had a high-performance culture that was often very demanding, so I introduced the idea of ‘high-performance care’ to support and complement that. Listening to people, asking for their feedback and ideas, being considerate, offering help, as well as putting policies and governance in place to ensure people are treated fairly: these aren’t rocket science and don’t cost very much at all.
“The only time I’ve come to blows with any other member of a senior management team is when there’s been a suggestion that treating people with kindness and having a high bar on company performance are somehow mutually exclusive. They aren’t, and I’d argue the man in question had misunderstood what kindness actually meant.”
One woman who doesn’t need to be sold on the benefits of working kinder is Iffie Jennings, founder and CEO of The Kindness Network. She set up her passion project because she finds it “exhausting to turn on the TV, browse social media or watch the news only to see another display of mean-spirited interactions”. Jennings decided to do something to counteract the negativity. “I thought I needed to be the change I want to see in the world. Ultimately kindness became a lifestyle change for me, and now I challenge all I come into contact with to live our mission by spreading love, kindness, compassion.”
One of the cornerstones of The Kindness Network is that no act is too small. “We model humble leadership”, she says. “Kindness is required at all levels, in all roles.”
In workplaces around the world Jennings believes we have lost focus on the importance of kindness. “I believe that comes from a lack of human connection. It is so easy to hide behind our computer screens and our busy work schedule. I completely understand that it is difficult to manage with fewer resources and more demanding schedules, but the most important asset for a company is its human capital…
“When we lead with kindness, we create a culture where people can bring their best selves to work. We create environments where people can make mistakes but learn from them. More importantly, we create a space where innovation and creativity are celebrated, which is critical in this competitive environment.”
Employees, says Jennings, “want a space where they understand their purpose and feel appreciated. Kindness is simple but impactful. At the end of the day, everyone wants to know they are seen, appreciated, and someone cares.”
Professor Campbell says when kindness is associated with humility, empathy and collaboration, then we have the key to successful, engaged and happy workplaces that are more productive. “Research we conducted with LinkedIn has shown that an astonishingly low percentage [around a third] of respondents reported ever having had a manager who they would describe as ‘supportive’, so there is plenty of room for improvement. Research has shown that transformative leadership styles are more effective than transactional approaches and have better firm performance. Of CEOs who adopt a servant or narcissistic leadership style, research has found the servant leaders produce a higher return on assets."
It was heartening that every woman I asked was able to easily call to mind examples of genuine kindness exemplified by female colleagues or bosses in the workplace.
I can think of dozens of examples and I’m not just talking being handed tissues or bought drinks after a bad day, but of female colleagues going above and beyond to make sure I was OK, supported and encouraged. The impact of these deeds can’t be underestimated – I still feel a visceral loyalty to the director who expressed interest in my imperfect ideas. I’d still bend over backwards for old colleagues who cared much more than was required at the time. If anyone thinks kindness is just a nice bonus, they are blind to the benefits it can have on their business.
Joy Parkinson is CEO of organic beauty brand Faith In Nature. When I ask for examples of kindness, she recalls a HR manager during her time at Mars who was “very supportive and nurturing”. At McVitie’s, she recalls working with a PA who was “a huge support to me personally and so kind helping me manage my life. I had three kids while doing a massive MD job – she was often a much-needed shoulder to cry on.”
Parkinson goes on to make an interesting point about paying kindness forward, backing up something I have long felt is true – that if your boss is kind to you, you are much more likely to demonstrate the same kindness to those working with or under you.
“Rivka, our founder and owner at Faith In Nature, always makes me feel it’s OK to speak up and talk to your boss about challenges in your life overall,” says Parkinson. “This can massively effect you. You feel so much better and relieved if you’re able to share with your boss in confidence. I hope and think my team feel they have this relationship with me too.”
So, what does leading with kindness looks like on a daily basis? “I try to get the balance right between being tough, uncompromising, impatient versus supportive and kind,” says Parkinson. “I treat my team how I like to be treated. Praise, saying thank you – it’s very important. Giving people flexibility to be there for their families – I’ve never missed an important sports day or assembly for any of my kids, and I wouldn’t want my team to either – they know that.
“Being open about your own life outside work – makes you seem more human. Showing your own emotions – I wear my heart very much on my sleeve – and all of that can make you seem more personable and approachable.”
Mel Exon believes in the benefits of kindness, too. “You can have all the vision and ambition in the world, but without kindness, you’re simply not a leader, and not much of a human either. It shouldn’t ever be dismissed as a ‘soft’ criterion to be discarded in the face of adversity. to receive kindness (and, interestingly, to give kindness too) is critical to a human being’s positive mental health.
“What leader ignores the mental health of their company without risking major commercial and cultural fallout?” asks Exon. “The kind of fallout that creates disproportionate churn and spiralling sick days, to which we can add the equally disruptive – if harder to measure – correlation between a demotivated workforce and declines in productivity.
“In short,” she continues, “kindness doesn’t mean setting low expectations or avoiding difficult conversations. It does mean caring about someone’s development, guiding them towards clear goals and seeing mistakes as the learning opportunities that they are.”
In closing, I ask Exon if more kindness is needed – I’ll leave you with her reply. “It’s essential. You can have all the vision and ambition in the world, but without kindness, you’re simply not a leader, and not much of a human, either.”
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