I mentioned to a friend that I was writing an article on “Kindness in Leadership.” His opinion was that it would generally be viewed as another article on the soft and mushy, and those are perceived to be signs of weakness in a leader. After all, leaders are in the business of delivering results; being “kind” gets in the way of that. Right? Wrong…
Tom Peters, the co-author of the best-selling “In Search of Excellence” is highly regarded as a thought leader in business management practices. He holds two engineering degrees from Cornell, and an MBA and Ph.D. in organizational effectiveness from Stanford. I’m highlighting his credentials to demonstrate that he is as “hard” and “substantive” as they come. Yet, in his latest and final book “Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism,” he describes his life in six words: “Hard is soft. Soft is hard.” This has been his very loud drumbeat since the 1980s. Yet, it has not caught on in Organizations as the norm despite the clear evidence that “the most wholesome, community-minded organizations…win in the marketplace as well.” One evidence we can all relate to: Google. In an article by Valerie Strauss for the Washington Post, she reported that “The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others; having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.”
Why then, is the soft stuff still not the norm?
I for one, did not always appreciate the value of the “soft stuff.” When I started managing people in my career, I made it very clear to the team that we were there to produce the business results expected of us and go over and beyond our assigned duties. Personal lives and problems were to be left at the door when we reported to work. We were not there to be friends or loyal to one another. I managed the team purely based on numbers; “you are as good as your last report,” I always said. Did we hit the numbers? Yes, we were on target. Did I get promoted into more senior roles? Yes. But I also found myself overwhelmed, in an endless cycle of hiring, training, firing owing to the high attrition in the department. The results were achieved under great duress. The star performers in the team viewed my department as a bridge to the next function or organization. There was minimal trust, if any. Instead, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty.
In 2015 I ran a Hogan assessment exercise to map out the team and understand the skills, dynamics and how well we worked together toward strategic goals. This is when I realized that I basically had no team with me. There was a massive gap between me as the leader and the rest of the team. It was clear that the team did not well understand the organizational strategy we were pursuing and were disengaged, waiting on work orders received from the top. No wonder achieving results was akin to pushing a boulder uphill! If you are reading this and have visionary traits, you know only too well how impatient we “visionaries” can get. I had to make clear, deliberate decisions to not only shed my impatience (still a work in progress) but also improve my active listening. I gradually shifted my mindset from “command and control” to “empowered people wilfully act in the best interests of the organization.” I also became a coach.
This is where empathy and kindness come into play. To believe and trust that your team has the best interests of the organization at heart and therefore the role you play as the leader is to empower them to actualize that, you need a healthy dose of empathy. Empowering people means taking a genuine interest in understanding them at the individual level, enough to know the coaching and development needed to help them succeed in their assigned duties. Kindness is needed because when you are empowering and entrusting, things will go wrong as people test creative and/or innovative solutions to the changing conditions faced by the organization. Kindness does not mean a laissez-faire policy. You do hold people accountable, but you remain level-headed enough to determine root cause first. Tough decisions are made, but it is about how you go about it. You still drive hard for results, but it is about how you go about it and what it inspires in your team.
As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Since I set out on this path six years ago, I have not only transformed myself but more importantly, those I am responsible for in the organizations I have worked in. I am still very much, results and action oriented. But now, I focus on building a high performance-enabling environment. I also know the team is beside me as we tackle challenges, opportunities, and uncertainties together. Do we achieve results together? Yes, we exceed expectations! Do we grow together? Yes! I now find myself involved in my team’s continuous development and find my responsibilities way more fulfilling and exciting.
David Lale, Group CEO at Oxford HR, fully supports this idea and states that “In my leadership experience, kindness breeds trust and respect, which are in turn such important culture ingredients for a high performing team and a healthy organisation. Trust and respect need to be earned over time, whereas kindness can be freely given and costs nothing.”
We are in a continued state of disruption and uncertainty, possibly forever…
If there was ever a time, we needed our teams empowered and fully engaged to be creative, it is now. The pandemic has upended the world we live in and how we run our organizations. While the world is opening up again and things look like they’re going back to normal, we’re far from leaving the uncertainty behind us. A recent article by McKinsey on “The resilience imperative: Succeeding in uncertain times” states: “Catastrophic events will grow more frequent but less predictable. They will unfold faster, but in more varied ways. The digital and technology [AI] revolution, climate change and geopolitical uncertainty will all play major roles.” The disruption is only accelerating; buckle up.
Numerous studies of the pandemic’s impact on organizations consistently show the organizations outperforming their peers rank higher on employee engagement. Why? Because organizations with engaged employees have timely feedback loops on how the strategy is doing on the ground. They give real-time information and evidence that facilitates innovation to capture new market value/impact; or maybe, inform the iteration or full pivot of the strategy. More importantly, the leaders trust the feedback received and act on it. As leaders, it is our main responsibility to create the work environments that enable all our key stakeholders to win. It all starts with your team and how you show up for them. What kind of environment have you created for your team? Is it future proof?
Diana Mulili is passionate about solving Africa’s prosperity challenges. She is currently serving on the Amahoro Coalition’s leaders council, an African-led platform convening business leaders from the East African region, to spearhead the engagement of the private sector in transforming refugee communities. Prior to this, she was the interim CEO of Msingi East Africa, a not-for-profit organization catalyzing structural transformation of East Africa’s economies through sector-specific interventions for systemic constraints faced by domestic and foreign investors in the Aquaculture and Textiles & Apparel industries.
She holds a Master of Business Administration from the African Leadership University School of Business; a Certificate of Driving Innovation and New Ventures in Established Organizations from Stanford Graduate School of Business; and a Practitioner’s Diploma in Executive Coaching from the Academy of Executive Coaching.