Within five minutes of each other I read two different views of kindness in leadership. General Colin Powell in his book It Worked for Me writes about the importance of kindness in leadership while Bob Lutz in Forbes magazine writes how kindness in leadership is just a “dumb…fad.” Talk about opposing views. It did get me wondering if leading with kindness can actually get results. What do you think?

It is interesting to note that these two gentlemen both come from military backgrounds. Colin Powell is well-known to most Americans and rose to the highest level in the military – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also served as Secretary of State. Bob Lutz is a former Marine combat jet pilot and has held many executive positions in the automobile industry. Lutz is known as a car expert and, undoubtedly, understands the automobile industry, car dealers, and car sales.

Kindness Begins with How Leaders See People. For leaders to lead with kindness I believe you first must see people as people, not objects. While this sounds pretty basic, I see leaders make this mistake often. If you see people as task doers and mechanisms to achieve an outcome or process, then you are seeing people as objects. When you do this, you are unlikely to treat them as people when mistakes are made or outcomes are not hit. You begin to see them as problems and you treat them that way. A recent example I overheard in a retail store was hearing a manager complain when her team member was talking to her about taking time off – she let the employee know what a burden it was going to be for her because she was going to have to do the employee’s job while she was out.

Showing Gratitude is Kindness. One way leaders demonstrate kindness is by showing genuine gratitude. One of the keys to showing gratitude is it should always be genuine and personalized. If you are just going through the motions the receiver knows it and begins to discount it. In her book, Eat That Cookie, Liz Jazwiez tells us a story about when she organized a hospital wide pizza party as a way to show appreciation to the employees – she thought it would be great. Unfortunately all the pizzas were served down in the cafeteria so most of the care-giving team members (RNs, RDs, etc.) couldn’t break away to go down and have any. So, they actually felt left out. Her good intentions backfired and she learned that displays of genuine gratitude needed to be more personal. She later served food and treats personally on all the floors.

Last week it was my wife’s birthday. She works as a registered dietician in a New Hampshire hospital. When she got home she told me how touched she was because her new supervisor recognized her birthday by giving her a fresh flower. This was a first for her at the hospital. This was a genuine act of personalized kindness.

Holding People Accountable is an Act of Kindness. Some old school, hard-nosed people say you can’t run a business by being squishy kind to everyone, especially when they are “screwing-up.” I think you can hold people accountable and be kind. One thing I have learned over the last 15 years is that when you let people know what is expected of them and hold them accountable, you have happier team members and your organization achieves higher outcomes. The key to doing this “kindly” is by always communicating respectfully and calmly, even when you need to be firm.

Here’s an exercise for you. Think about how you could handle each of these situations kindly involving a team member subordinate you are leading –

  1. She is regularly late for work.
  2. He doesn’t complete his paperwork accurately.
  3. She doesn’t achieve her outcomes and makes excuses why.
  4. He lied about his mileage report and you give him a written warning.
  5. She did a task so poorly that your customer is very angry and threatens to stop doing business with you.
  6. He lied again and you are going to terminate him.

When these situations really happen we each experience a wide range of negative emotions, I know I do. The key is to recognize it, stop, and think through how you will handle the situation calmly and respectfully. Remember you are interacting with another person, who, most likely, doesn’t intend to do harm or cause YOU a problem.

There are three great reasons why you want to hold people accountable kindly –

  1. First, the committed employees respect you more and work harder for you because you treated them kindly when she or he underperformed. They know you have their best interest as well as the organization’s in mind.
  2. Their co-workers will respect you for addressing the under-performance and the way you handled the situation, if a situation is observable to others.
  3. Finally, if a person leaves your employment their level of anger will be much lower if you handle them kindly and with respect.

In his book, General Powell tells us a story about the most meaningful piece of “kindness” advice he received. It came from an aging Episcopal priest in his final sermon at Powell’s church. At the end of the sermon he looked at everyone and said, “Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.” Powerful, kind advice to lead by.