Is Kindness a Leadership Competency?

If you had asked me a few years back if I thought kindness was essential to leadership, I may have choked down laughter. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it listed in a list of essential skills for a leader.

Perhaps we can value kindness through painfully experiencing its opposite. When I left a large company a few years ago as one of thousands being layed off following an acquisition, I wasn’t treated well on my last few days there. Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for my years at that company, but was left with a final memory that could spoil a great career if I had let it.

This memory rears its ugly head from time to time – especially now, as I see thousands of employees losing their jobs. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t treated kindly.

The instigator of the bad experience was one person who was going through his own hell, wondering if he was going to have a job the next day. Stress does not make good bedfellows with kindness. When we’re under the extreme stress that a deep recession can cause, kindness can barely get any air time in brains and hearts that have been hijacked by worry. There are ways to encourage kindness in ourselves, though.

You can be firm and kind at the same time

Sure, in these tough times, I don’t advocate that you give up being firm. Firmness is essential too. It may be easier to be firm as you are dealing with the brunt of the recession – layoffs, pay cuts, and keeping your organization or business afloat.

However, when we are under stress, we either focus too much on the tasks to be completed or we turn inward, becoming overly focused on ourselves and our situation.

Being kind might be more essential than it has ever been.

The reasons for being kind are more compelling than ever. Geoff Colvin, author of The Upside of the Downturn, says “When the downturn ends, everyone will remember how your company behaved in the dark days.” They will also, more sharply perhaps, remember how YOU behaved in the dark days.

How can you be kind to others during the dark days?

Take care of yourself first. Really. Sounds a little strange when we’re talking about being kind to others. How can you possibly be kind to others when your health – mental and physical – aren’t at their peak?

Figure out what you might be able to control in your life outside of work (since you may be feeling like you can’t control much at work). Use that gym membership, get a therapist or a coach, increase the time you spend with your loved ones, meditate, pray, enjoy life in whatever way fulfills you.

Then you can focus on the needs of others in your organization or business. The oldest trick in the world for finding fulfillment is to help others. Like you, your employees and peers may feel fearful and powerless. What role might you play in easing that? What action can you take that will assist others in developing some control over what they can?

So when employees want to talk about what they are experiencing, listen with kindness. It will help you to be more human. And in the end, kindness will cost your organization and company less than its opposite.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

9 comments on “Is Kindness a Leadership Competency?

  1. Mary Jo,

    This is probably my favorite post from you yet.

    I agree with you that kindness costs much less than it's opposite. Kindness can become a habit with practice, and impacts people in ways we might never know.

    Although you remember all too well the poor treatment you received at your organization, extraordinary acts of kindness are also unforgettable. Do you think we will forget Brookie's name anytime soon?
    http://mountainstate.typepad.com/leadership/2009/06/leadership-at-all-levels.html

  2. Becky, thank you. And I do remember Brookie – the queen of kindness. What a wonderful experience and memory you created with that post!

  3. Mary Jo,

    I discovered you this morning and have found someone new to follow!

    I believe strongly that kindness is a personal characteric that is essential to sustainable business success. I left my corporate career after 28 years to help other leaders reach their full potential – which includes treating others with kindness. I will forever exude the core value I learned from my years with Hallmark Cards…to treat others with dignity and respect first.

  4. Deb-

    Best wishes on your new career and wonderful journey! Looks like you are well positioned to help others achieve their best with the core values you've learned. I'll look forward to hearing more from you.

  5. Great post, Mary Jo. I love the way you raised up a special word, "kindness," that's often heard as "weakness," defined it properly and set it in context. Brava.

    And I applaud the advice to take of yourself first. You can't give from an empty cup.

  6. Wally-

    Thanks for adding to the conversation. I like the concept of "you can't give from an empty cup". We've all experienced the empty cup and what it does to our ability to to relate to others (and it often isn't pretty).

  7. I have read and re-read your post with delight! great all-around read and so true! The kindness option is just not explored enough in buisiness and it does make such a difference. In my book on Otheresteem, I write about what happens when you CHOOSE to treat others well. This post resonates so much with my thoughts on the subject. I have shared it with many of my contacts. Thanks for your sincere exploration on the subject. Tweet ya later!

  8. This is a great post and one very close to my heart! And not just mine. As Yahoo's Tim Sanders said:

    “Business people who are the busiest, the happiest, and the most prosperous are the ones who are the most generous with their knowledge and their expertise. People who love what they're doing, who love to learn new things, to meet new people, and to share what and whom they know with others: these are the people who wind up creating the new economic value and, as a result, moving their companies forward.”

    Wise words indeed, whether before, during or after an economic downturn. If looking after ourselves so we can look after those we manage isn't classed as a leadership/management competency, perhaps it should be!

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