A Presidential Lesson on Why Kindness in the Workplace Matters

Jan 29, 2020 1 Min Read
president, kindness matters

Great leaders are great givers

John Maxwell

When he was the U.S. President, the late George H. W. Bush was celebrated by his supporters and respected by many of his opponents. As a politician, he was shrewd; he was also an astute businessman and American war hero. In fact, I was always amazed that he never won a 2nd term even though he did all the right things as a president.

Tall, wealthy and handsome, Bush was devoted to his wife and children, who in turn doted on him. By the time he became America’s 41st president in 1989, he had served for eight years as vice-president. Bush had also been the director of the CIA.

Read: Kindness Matters. And, it’s Good for Your Brain

Born into an upper-class family, George Bush – father of America’s 43rd president, George W. Bush – enjoyed a life of privilege from the beginning of his life. Endowed with all the good fortune he was blessed with, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bush Snr. was out of touch with the lives of ordinary people and aloof to the everyday struggles of Americans.

And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. George, alongside his late wife Barbara, showed tremendous respect to the White House staff during his time in the Oval Office and beyond.

The President and First Lady would often spend time talking to the staff, with everyone sharing stories from their lives. Bush Snr. was insistent that the White House should feel like home to all who lived there. He knew everyone by their first names and would often ask about their families and home life.

George and Barbara Bush dancing

Image from the Washington Post

To keep morale high, Bush Snr. would joke around with staff and even arranged sports tournaments that invoked friendly competition and also ingrained a sense of camaraderie and team spirit within the White House. When George and Barbara said a final goodbye after their term came to an end, they remarked at the time that it felt as if they were leaving sons and daughters behind. Bush Snr – a man known for his composure – admitted that he found it tough to keep it together as he bid farewell to his staff.

There are numerous traits that have been widely discussed in connection with what makes someone an effective leader, and the one thing all the best leaders have in common is that they treat everyone with respect, often making a personal connection with the people around them.

They possess a strong intuition that even the smallest of gestures can make the biggest difference in terms of commitment, morale and engagement from their team. Not only do they have the intuition, they go out of their way to act on it. They don’t believe that people should be grateful to be working for them; on the contrary, such leaders show how grateful they are for their people.

To read about how to be a better giver as Bush and many other leaders were, read this great article: Leaders Are Givers

Following her death in April 2018, the love and respect that continued within the White House for Barbara Bush was so deeply felt that the current First Lady, Melania Trump, invited members of staff to attend Mrs. Bush’s funeral as her guests.

George and Barbara Bush developed such a strong affinity with people in the White House that lasted long after Bush Snr. left office. They held the belief that everyone is valuable as a human being and so treated everyone with courtesy, kindness and respect.

It’s something, as leaders, we all know. The idea that we should show gratitude and spend time getting to know our team members is one we often talk about… and yet, how many leaders neglect to follow through on these good intentions?

The personal touch can go a long way to establishing a trusting bond and strong working relationship. These days, most of us are constantly battling deadlines and juggling to-do lists and navigating countless calendar entries. In a world where we can feel defined by duties and devices, being able to connect regularly on a human level reminds us of the bond we share as a team and the important role we each play.

The best leaders are givers who give their time to do simple, small gestures that make a difference. Are you a giver or a receiver? I wrote a great article a few years ago on how to find out. You can read more here.

Simple gestures

Whether it’s stopping to ask someone how they’re doing (and showing genuine interest in how they’re doing), offering praise for a job well done, taking colleagues out for a birthday coffee or lunch – or even a quick email or note to say “thank you” – people get a sense that their leader is someone who cares about them.

As a result, people don’t feel as though they’re just another dispensable employee; instead, they see that they are a valued member of the team and someone who their leader respects and wants to get to know. That kind of connection goes further in boosting morale than any end-of-year bonus, because it inspires intrinsic motivation to live up to the level of respect shown by the leader.

Guided by principles of family values and faith, George H. W. Bush was someone who went out of his way to make sure his people knew that they mattered. Commenting on his value of treating others well, he said:

There is a God and He is good, and His love, while free, has a self-imposed cost: We must be good to one another.

Are we good?

To be truly great, we need to be good.  Being good requires giving our most precious asset at our disposal – our time. As leaders, time is everything.  Yet, if we can use this time to do the simple things that make a huge difference to our employees and teams, and build amazing bonds in the process, our leadership becomes far more effective.

Traditionally, the idea of focusing on what might have been described as ‘soft’ values has been viewed as something of a luxury, one that leaders might indulge in once they take care of the ‘real’ business of performance, results, and the bottom line. But recent research has shown that treating people like early industrial factory workers (i.e. automatons paid to do a job) has a detrimental effect on performance.

Read this: 5 Lessons on Embracing Humanity in Business

People feel disengaged and demoralised by leaders who neglect their employees’ well-being — the best they can expect to receive is the bare minimum offered through compliance.  But when people are treated like people, with kindness in your heart, there are significant positive results.

A study conducted by researchers at University of California headed by Joseph Chancellor found that, where acts of kindness regularly took place in the workplace, the organisation benefited overall as both receivers and those performing the acts of kindness felt a greater sense of happiness and job satisfaction.

And so, for this year, take time (even though you may not have much of it) to show kindness, love and care for the people around you. It may take an extra minute or two, but the effects may just surprise you. 

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com


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