There's something ironic, almost comical, about the notion that kindness is a weakness. We often hear about the "dog-eat-dog world" of business, and the idea that we gain no respect for being open, transparent, or vulnerable as leaders.
And yet, a growing body of research from the likes of renowned leadership experts Prof. Richard Boyatzis at Case Western Reserve University and Prof. Richard Ryan - co-founder of Self-Determination Theory - strongly indicates that leaders who are compassionate and kind get much more from their teams than authoritarian leaders who micromanage and push for compliance.
In fact, leaders who are likeable are often viewed as effective leaders (there are, of course, exceptions to the rule). Teams who are led by kind and compassionate leaders are also more likely to be "happier at work, go above and beyond what is required of them, experience greater well-being, and perform at a higher level."
According to Richard Ryan's Self-Determination Theory, humans have three fundamental needs that allow us to flourish and be at the top of our game. These are: Relatedness (being connected to others); Competence (having the support to grow, learn and contribute); and Autonomy (the freedom to have choices over our performance and behaviours).
Leaders who are kind, compassionate and supportive help ensure that these needs are met by cultivating a culture built on trust, respect and mutual value. As a result, people are more engaged, committed to common goals and objectives, and are more willing to follow their leader's direction.
Why, then, it is so hard for some leaders to be kind and compassionate? To begin with, many leaders see kindness as a quality that reduces their image of a strong leader. When we think of conventional leadership, we might think of the strong-minded, take-charge character who makes bold decisions for the greater good. They might have the attitude that strong leadership isn't about being liked - it's about being respected and being in command of situations and people.
One of history's most revered "strongman" leaders is Alexander the Great who, by the age of 25, conquered the Persian Empire and at 30, was an explorer of the Indian frontier. By the time of his death at the age of 32, his empire stretched from Greece to modern-day Pakistan. Aside from his strategic brilliance and prowess on the battlefield, Alexander commanded great respect and devotion from his men because he was so attuned to their needs. A leader far ahead of his time, he would regularly acknowledge feats of bravery in battle and recall acts of valour by fallen heroes within the ranks. As one of history's greatest military minds, Alexander knew the value of being a kind and just leader if he wanted to maintain devotion to his cause throughout his empire.
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay
Another reason why some leaders find it difficult to be kind is that it can leave leaders feeling vulnerable and open to exploitation. That said, kindness isn't about being a doormat or agreeing to every idea and suggestion that comes our way. Being a kind leader is about consistently offering appropriate recognition, support and validation to team members. Sometimes, support can come in the form of calling out unhelpful behaviours or poor performances and offering a clear rationale for whatever action you feel needs to be taken to address an issue. At the heart of being a kind leader is respect for others.
On the contrary to being a weakness, kindness is a quality of strength in effective leadership - and it also requires a lot of strength for leaders to show kindness consistently. As leaders, we need the courage to be open and vulnerable with our people; we need the courage to confront our own ego and acknowledge that our success is largely brought about by the people around us: we are the conductors while our team members are the ones who ultimately deliver the results.
We also need the strength to take the criticisms and judgements that come our way. As leaders, we don't just lead people who admire and respect us - we have to find ways to connect with those who don't always agree with what we do or how we do it. Our critics might have their points, in which case we also need the strength to reflect honestly on how we are doing as leaders. Ideally, that includes soliciting feedback from those who work alongside us. And like every other human being, we need the strength to accept our imperfections and flaws and the fact that we will mess up and make mistakes on occasion. No-one who ever tried to achieve anything worthwhile did so without stumbling along the way or taking a wrong turn now and again.
As leaders, we juggle all of the above with the understanding that many people look to us for guidance, support, inspiration and motivation on a daily basis. Whether they're stressed, overwhelmed or feeling underappreciated, the leader will often be the one to take the brunt of people's frustrations, directly or indirectly; merited or otherwise. Regardless, part of our role as leaders is to support people to the best of our ability. Again, it's not that we become doormats. When people genuinely create issues, we need to take appropriate action; however, in being supportive we honour the nature of what it means to be a leader and uphold our responsibility and commitment to the team members we choose to lead. (Even if you didn't choose your team members directly, you still choose to lead the team you have.)
Read Next: Design A Powerful Start to a Great Leadership Day
One of my personal heroes is St. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) who was the epitome of the kind and compassionate servant leader. She faced great adversity, challenging circumstances, and had a number of critics. While we all have our opinions on great leaders throughout history, each of them was like each of us today: complex people struggling against our own imperfections as we try our best to navigate and make sense of a messy and uncertain world.
Source: Image by Daniel Joshua Paul from Pixabay
Kindness is crucial - and it requires a lot of strength as we deal with the challenges that life throws at us. And yet, it makes a powerful difference to have an anchor and an example to look to whenever we feel as though we're getting caught up in a strong tide. For me, the anchor that grounds me is Mother Teresa. Like her, I have my imperfections, and I do my best however I can and learn from my mistakes as much as I can.
Unlike her, I'm far from sainthood, but the example of Mother Teresa's strength through her kindness inspires me greatly and I work to emulate that kindness every day. I don't get it right all the time and I'm still learning from this extraordinary example of a determined leader who dedicated her life to serving others. In the meantime, I am grateful to have recently been reminded of her wonderful advice, which inspires me daily to carry on through challenges, obstacles and adversity.
Here is Mother Teresa's advice, and I hope it can bring inspiration, hope, and a sense of groundedness to readers who might be struggling with their own imperfections as they navigate this complex and uncertain world:
"People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."
Continue your journey here, watch the video below on Overcoming Failures, and understand about being vulnerable and resilient as a leader!