Have Courage and Be Kind - Exploring Leading with Kindness

30 April 2019

In my first article for the Southern Region newsletter, I wanted to tackle something close to my heart as a CMI Chartered Manager - Kindness. Reflecting on the complexity and oft ambiguity in our national and global society and business, it seems logical that there continue to be demands for more responsible leadership. Employees in organisations often bemoan the long hours culture, short-termism and cost-cutting nature of business which has arguably resulted in a focus on individualism, autonomy and independence to build competitiveness. The implication from this is that work, still considered to be one of the main sources of expression of personal identity and sense of worth, has become ‘dehumanised’. The disquiet in society over governmental policies and business practices around the world, suggests that human feel devalued like disposable functions or objects. 

But… thankfully in recent years we have seen more emphasis on the areas of emotional intelligence (considered in a recent CMI Southern Blog) and mindfulness, and their positive role in creating and sustaining wellbeing in work and life. Alongside this, more attention has been afforded to team working, building better relationships with colleagues and customers, collaboration and the importance of ‘making a difference’ through sustainable business practices. Kindness, however, is often not clearly held up as a distinctive aspect of leadership in this context. A new book ‘Kindness in Leadership’, published in 2018, was the first to focus on kindness from a range of angles - it is such an interesting read.   

So, what characterises a ‘kind leader’ at work? The words empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably with kindness - this is the metaphorical act of ‘putting yourself in others shoes’. In addition, authenticity and integrity, being grateful, down-to-earth, open, and even having a sense of humour are seen as key characteristics of kind leaders. Central to all of these is the value of building and sustaining relationships - meaningful human connections. This approach to leadership flies in the face of the past focus on heroic or charismatic leadership as effective models of leadership. In fact it has more of an affinity with Robert Greenleaf’s (1970) Servant Leadership which, through putting the needs of others first, can result in colleagues ascribing more authority to the leader because of their level of moral intelligence. 

How do we practise kindness as leaders? Here are some simple examples (from Karen Liebenguth, HRZone), the underlying principles of which can be transferred to other leadership activities: 

  • say good morning or hello to colleagues more often
  • smile at a colleague (or as many as you like) every day for one week and notice what happens and how you feel
  • be considerate: when you make yourself a cup of tea, ask others whether they would like a cuppa too
  • be more vocal in your praise: pay a different colleague a compliment every day for one week and notice the effect it has on them and you
  • authentic listening: when asking colleagues ‘how are you?’, stop and listen, be interested in how they really are (it only needs to take five minutes)
  • help or support a colleague in need when you can: pay attention to those around you and try to notice if someone is stressed or under the weather, or if they’re aiming to meet a deadline, prepare for an event or perhaps struggling with staff absence
  • make time to write a personal thank you note/email/gesture to a colleague to show them that they are appreciated
  • make time for colleagues: every week, go for coffee/lunch and talk about things other than work with your colleagues
  • show appreciation: complaining is easy, but how about taking some time at the end of each meeting to highlight some positives about all the participants in the room?  
  • wish someone well:  it can be the same person or different colleagues. When you bump into someone, seize that moment, and for just a few seconds wish them well – wish them a good day or afternoon. Notice the effect and how you feel. 

This brings me back to the title of the article – ‘Have Courage and Be Kind’.  Although acts of kindness benefit the giver and the receiver often boosting their wellbeing, for leaders kindness takes courage. Courage to act for the best of many, rather than those who shout the loudest or those who push themselves to the front of the queue. The leader should also be straightforward and direct in working with others – which might mean calling out bad or unethical behaviours and having difficult conversations, sometimes called ‘tough love’. It is also crucial to remember that kindness is only one facet of leaders’ qualities - therefore it is possible to be analytical and kind, and decisive and kind. So, kind leaders are not a pushover, nor are they without substance.

In reality though we must recognise that this approach could on occasions drain our energy, and so in leading with kindness we also need to build our resilience to ensure that we do not ‘burn out’. This may mean taking time to create spaces for ourselves, whether for our own development, catching-up with work activities, or having a coffee with our mentor or trusted colleagues. 

Further reading on kindness  

How will you lead with kindness today?  Start the kindness ripple effect now.

Further Resources via Management Direct:

Managers and Their Moral DNA: Better Values, Better Business by Roger Steare, Pavlos Stamboulides, Peter Neville Lewis, Lysbeth Plas, Petra Wilton and Patrick Woodman, CMI, March 2014. 

Trust in Business, By Simon Walker, Director Magazine, March 1, 2016.

Other resources:

Kindness in Leadership, edited by Gay Haskins, Mike Thomas and Lalit Johri, 2018, Routledge. 

Leading with Kindness: How Good People Consistently get Superior Results, by W.F. Baker and M. O’Malley, 2008, AMACOM. 

Leadership: Why Kindness is an Underrated Quality at Work, by Karen Liebenguth, 26th June 2018 

Article by Dr Lois Farquharson, Chair CMI Southern Board