That is perhaps the most dangerous question in the world for a leadership coach. Not because it is difficult, but because it is easy. Too easy, in fact. There is no wrong answer. You can choose from literally dozens of buzzwords and catch phrases and you will be guaranteed applause.
But, sitting on a panel one day, I was asked that very question. And the moderator, in all her sincerity, wanted a single, definitive answer. “Be sincerely and attentively kind to others,” I said. I had to explain myself then, so I probably have to explain myself now.
There are many universal habits of mind, talent and experience important to the role, but this one is often overlooked. It is rarely suggested out of fear of appearing weak or running counter to today’s generally accepted practice of excellence and “gritty” determination. You simply can’t go wrong, however, committing yourself to being kinder, especially as a leader of people. Not passive, not a pushover, not a conflict avoider; just kind, without condition or reservation.
So, what is kindness in the context of leadership? Simply this:
Kindness in leadership is the constant and self-sacrificing decision to put others before yourself, to put strangers before friends, the weak before the strong, the old before the young, the poor before the rich, the single before the plural and, above all, to recognize the brother, sister, mother and father in the faces of everyone you meet, including your enemies.
If it sounds a great deal like Servant Leadership, you would not be wrong. Perhaps the only distinction is that of origin and scope. Servant Leadership covers a broad spectrum of attributes, and its origins can be traced back to the Abrahamic religions of the West. Kindness, on the other hand, is a simple act born of the present moment, the need at hand and a desire to treat others as you would want to be treated. And to recognize that the one most often set aside and forgotten is the one in most need of a leader’s kindness.
If you’re still doubtful, may I suggest you take the following short quiz:
Without using Google, quickly name the following most influential leaders of their day and, perhaps, today: (a) the richest American CEO in 1959, (b) the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States in 1949, (c) a nun in Calcutta who opened and ran a center for the poor and destitute, and (d) a former lawyer turned activist who labored for India’s independence from British rule.
If you could only name the last two, you’re in good company. All of the above were truly successful leaders. But the two most readily recalled by name are also the two most remembered for espousing a compassionate and unconditional kindness in their practice of leadership.
It is often said that the best leaders produce other leaders. That is certainly true. So, I don’t suggest you practice kindness as an attribute of your own leadership just to be remembered. I suggest you practice kindness to be an effective and influential leader for all the generations of leaders to come.
Kindness is an attribute of the strong, not the weak. It is an attribute of nothing less than great and influential leadership. It is, as has been shown, utterly transformative.