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Should leaders be kind?



  1. Kindness is not on the leadership development curriculum
  2. Social pain maps onto the same regions as physical pain, with none of the analgesics, so it lasts. If leaders are "unkind", it will not be forgotten and they won't be worth following.
  3. Kindness is not softness. It comprises a set of attributes and assumptions about others that says you care enough about them necessarily as fellow human beings to act decently, not to treat them as merely factors of production.
  4. It matters: it's a core source of the discretionary effort from those we lead.

There used to be a TV show in the States called Little Rascals which I remember watching on a trip to see family when young. In one particular episode Spanky (main rascal and protagonist) was about to get, you guessed it, a good spanking (I think the show was from the 60s).  But Spanky was always fairly mischievous and pretty clever, and before the spanking was to be delivered, he put a book down the back of his shorts to cushion the blow. Spanky's father, as he put his son over his knee, said "Son, this is going to hurt me a lot more than it is going to hurt you." Spanky mumbles something like "you can say that again."

I also used to get whacked a lot at school. That kind of stuff still happened in eccentric English boarding schools in the early 1980s, and I got myself into sufficient numbers of scrapes to apparently merit that kind of response. Remembering Spanky, I found excellent use for my Latin textbook Ecce Romani pt. II, which was an optimal balance of size, flexibility and rigidity to dull the sharpest of blows without arousing the suspicions of an irate Headmaster. Not sure I've suffered too much as a result, but that's a whole other story..

I am not sure if that memory has stuck in my mind because I thought putting a book down my pants before getting whacked would be a good idea or because of what his father said, and a recent coaching engagement suddenly brought it back to mind. As a father myself, before any form of discipline with my own children, I have always tried to think, "Is this hurting me more than it is hurting them?" It's a great litmus test for parents.

Can kindness and toughness co-exist? Of course. Can parents discipline their children, but still be kind? Of course. Why? Because they care. Leaders can be kind, but still hold people accountable. Kindness is not contradictory to toughness when leaders care. As parents we do it all the time. As leaders we sometimes aren't so good at it. Why?

There is no training programme that teaches it that I am aware of. The skills of strategic planning, organisation, sharp decision making and delegation don't require it. But yet the best leaders I have known or worked with possess it. What is it? Kindness. Is it a natural or learned skill that can be developed later in life? I don't know. But one thing I do know is that kindness is necessary if a leader wants to be as effective as they can be.

Kindness can create trust, respect and can even help a leader become loved, maybe adored and possibly revered. I've worked with leaders who were sensitive, empathetic, caring and gracious – all important attributes of kindness. On the other hand I have worked with "leaders" who were selfish, thoughtless, rude and self-centred – each being an opposite attribute of kindness. Were leaders such as the latter effective? Yes, some of them got good results. However, and this is important, they were never able to engender the type of genuine loyalty, trustworthiness and steadfastness that results in the higher retention rates, innovative employee ideas and the dedicated followership kind leaders enjoy. In fact I would argue it was never even close.

Of course kindness is not the magic pill of leadership; other important skills in management and leadership must be practised as well. But great leaders are aware of it and practice it as part of their positive leadership arsenal. After all, a leader's job is to get the discretionary, not just obligatory, effort out of his or her people. In other words, to be worth following. I don't know anyone who is unkind who is worth following. Which kind of seals the case.

So, what do you think? Is kindness necessary in leadership?  I would welcome your comments, experiences and stories.

James Parsons