Leadership through kindness

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What do you think about when you imagine a good leader? What sort of person are you thinking about? What age are they? Which gender? Now, let’s think about what you’re imagining them doing. Are they giving a talk? Are they motivating a group of people? Are they congratulating them after a major success? Maybe you have a less positive connotation. You could be imagining someone shouting, or being angry or pushy.

It could be that the person that you are imagining is someone you know, or maybe it is someone that you look up to. Maybe it’s yourself! Either way, I can’t predict what you’re thinking about. However, I have a conjecture: I reckon that it’s unlikely that you imagined someone predominantly showing kindness.

Is that true?


In the opening gambit, I wrote down some of the variations that came into my own mind. What were they?

One common visualization is that of the inspirer: The politician, public figure or the CEO of a notable company. If you were working for this person, it is likely that you wouldn’t be working for them directly; you’d be working for them because you’re in their organization. Since you aren’t interacting with them on a personal level, you may be influenced by their public persona or what their company is achieving. You may look up to them speaking at large events or conducting themselves with civility in the public eye.

Another is the motivator. When visualizing this person, it’s more common to imagine yourself working with them on a closer, individual level. For example, they could be your direct line manager. You may have thought of them in a room with you individually or collectively with your team, offering some praise or words of advice. This person makes you feel secure. You trust them.

The third type of person that came to mind represents the negative stereotype of some leaders. Perhaps we could call this trait the drill sergeant. Angry, shouting, ruling with an iron fist; yet trusted, because if this person isn’t going to take any crap from you, then they’re probably not going to take any crap from anyone else either. You’re safe, albeit through fear. They probably deploy the stick on a regular basis.

I mentioned that it was unlikely that you imagined someone being gentle and kind. It might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it is critically important in being a good leader. Let’s have a look at why, and follow with some examples that I’ve experienced of how to use kindness for the greater good.

Being kind

First up: let’s abolish the stereotype that being kind means that you’re being soft. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Being kind doesn’t mean letting standards slip, or accepting poor performance, or protecting your staff from interacting with difficult personalities or projects.

An effective leader who is also kind is a show of strength through emotional intelligence. Being emotionally in tune with those that you work with means that your staff will feel listened to, wanted and cared for. In turn this increases trust, which allows for open and honest relationships; a key to retaining staff through bad times and good.

As software continues to eat the world, the job market for your most talented staff is a fully-stocked candy shop that sends them enticing emails on a daily basis. Given that there are so many different companies to work for, located all over the world (noting the increase in remote working), you’re going to find it difficult to offer a constant rotation of extremely exciting projects that will be more attractive than what a headhunter is luring your staff with. However, as we’ve tried to show on this blog, you can compete through camaraderie and kindness to your staff. It’s also the right thing to do.

How can you be kind?

I’d hope that we all know how to be kind in general, and that is certainly encouraged, to say the least. But what are some techniques that demonstrate your kindness and in turn build better relationships with your staff?

  • Asking questions and listening: In an earlier article we have touched upon the notion that your meetings with your staff should be their meetings rather than yours. This means listening more than you speak, and asking questions rather than being directive. Simply allowing this space to be theirs is an act of kindness, that you value their time and opinion. Better still, this allows a the topics of conversation to ebb and flow, offering opportunities for you to get to know them better on a personal level.
  • Being open and honest: Yet another reference to Radical Candor. Don’t worry, I’m not getting commission. But being open and honest in your conversations with your staff is a way of showing kindness: it shows them that you care to be transparent, and to offer your unsolicited praise, feedback and critique. This in turn demonstrates by example that you encourage them to do the same with you. If you build this level of rapport, then it is more likely that your staff will open up to you about deeper issues with time.
  • Appreciating hard work: Simple gestures of kindness go a long way. Making sure that you say thank you, privately and publicly, has a much greater impact than you may think. Additionally, if you have a team who have worked hard to meet a deadline, are there ways that you can relax their output over the following week to help them recoup? For example, you could offer them the ability to work on improvements of their own choice, or give a safe period to pay down technical debt. Using small parts of your budget to signpost success is also an act of kindness: taking a team out to lunch, or for an activity together.
  • Offering flexibility: Being sympathetic to constraints outside of work is kind. Flexible working from home days, or flexible start and end times for those with dependents can help immensely, especially when it can take the pressure away from your staff’s partner or family. When people are sick, make sure they go home and rest rather than fighting through. If someone needs to go to the doctor or the hospital, just let them go rather than needing use up their holiday time.
  • Giving time back: Sometimes life can throw curveballs, such as a sick child, a sick partner, a grievance in the family, and so on. If it turns out that your staff has taken holiday in order to be present for issues like these, you could consider giving some of their holiday days back to them as an act of compassion.
  • Doing your research: If a member of staff opens up about a personal issue, such as a mental health problem, or has concerns about something either inside or outside of work, then an act of kindness is to go and do your research on it. Look it up. What does it mean? Can you help, or is this something that requires help from others in the company, or even medical or professional help? Caring personally allows you to encourage your staff to look into getting help either from you or others. It also shows that you have an interest, and it encourages them to strengthen their connection with you through conversation.

In summary

Leadership isn’t all about bravado, or wielding the stick, or being inspirational and larger than life. Instead, it can be just as effective to be kind and compassionate. Doing so builds a bond that makes your staff want to continue to work with you, and encourages a positive culture in the workplace.

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