Leading with Kindness

Published: Apr 08, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By William F. Baker, Ph.D., and Michael O'Malley, Ph.D.

Kindness is not the first word we associate with business. The image of business still largely includes old scenes from industrial America in the early twentieth century: the age of hard work and tough bosses. As the machines heated, spun, milled, and bore, managerial overlords paced factory floors counting the output and pressing employees to produce more and more. This was not the place for weak-kneed supervisors and executives. Forbearance was not a principle of Taylorism and the new scientific management, which adduced tightly choreographed movements between man and machine. The goal was to keep production lines efficiently moving by any means necessary. The only thing worse than workers who wouldn’t work was a soft manager who couldn’t make them.

Today, the pressure for unremitting productivity from the forces of fierce competition in the global marketplace continues. New, unforeseen market entrants can suddenly emerge from anywhere in the world with a new technology, better business model, or improved product, to exploit a company’s weaknesses and rob it of customers. Meanwhile, traditional competitors are always laying in wait for a missed order, a slip in quality, or a lapse in service. The margin of error is very thin, and befuddled, wishy-washy executives who can’t manage to the numbers are expendable. We would agree, but the premises of operational precision, rigorous financial oversight, and market wariness that belie organizational success often lead in an unpromising direction: back to the lords of the shop floor and a falsely constructed ideal of an overly severe leader.

We mistake the need for precision with the need for managerial control, the need for oversight with the need for corporate autocracy, and the need for vigilance with the need for icy objectivity and personal detachment. We conclude that what every business presumably needs is a leader who is calculative, single-minded in the financial purposes of the enterprise, and, perhaps, competitive to a fault: to the point of being overbearingly aggressive and belligerent. In this new age of competitiveness, we assume that managers who are incapable or unwilling to grimly snip away at expenses, to relentlessly push employees, and to be unyieldingly tough are too compromised to succeed in a harsh and unforgiving business world. As our erstwhile leaders did in the industrial age, today’s leaders ostensibly, too, must be uncompromisingly and dispassionately focused on the prize of productivity gains and wealth creation for shareholders. Everything else is an investment or expense.

The abiding impression of the modern manager remains haunted by images of past generations of overcontrolling thugs: the new company man or woman who has just the right amount of indifference and interpersonal distance to make the unthinkable possible. He must get people to do their jobs the very best they can—without caring too deeply about their burdens. Whatever semblance of decency that emerges is part of a canned, formulaic concoction designed to get results. Those who are unsuccessful at feigning concern are sent off to communication classes where they are shown how to listen harder and to demonstrate empathic awareness through carefully crafted questions and statements.

Since many employees have had to endure the dismissive and erratic treatment of “shouters” during their tenures, our point is proven by that experience. We have a very long way to go before universal decency prevails within management. Why else would more than twelve states now be contemplating laws that allow workers to sue their bosses for “threatening, intimidating or humiliating” behavior, “repeated infliction of verbal abuse,” or “gratuitous sabotage . . . of a person’s work performance”? Discriminating against specific groups has been outlawed for some time, but states have now turned their attention to those who have been referred to as “the equal opportunity asshole.” These are the managers who indiscriminately abuse everyone. Most disconcerting, however, is that despite living in an era of unprecedented economic progress and scientific enlightenment, management practice remains primitive, with the incidence of bullying in the workplace increasing, not decreasing as one might have surmised.

Neither of the authors prefers external regulation and law for influencing behavior. We prefer a positive approach, with voluntary acceptance as a first course of action, that is, a method that convinces managers that there are far more dignified and effective ways to get results than by inculcating scream-and-holler cultures. Winning Super Bowl coach Tony Dungy, for example, doesn’t curse, sarcastically chew out players, or rant on the sidelines. He believes he can get his team to compete by calmly providing direction and treating players with respect. Interestingly, this demeanor prevented him from getting a head coaching job for many years. We need more Tony Dungys, who, in the process of trying to perfect their own lives, set examples for others.

The real disgrace behind the new state laws under consideration is that too many executives who are in a position to do something about mismanagement within their ranks either don’t know what is going on or refuse to do anything about it. Organizational leaders who fail to step in when people need them most are culpable. It may be time, as both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal recently announced, for a new type of leader who has cast aside the largesse of ego and exercises power in more humane ways. This is tantamount to removing the crook from the hands of royalty, where it once symbolized authority and dominion, and passing it to the shepherd, where it became a symbol of protection and a humbler, more subtle form of power. The less invasive leadership style symbolized by the shepherd’s staff reminds us of a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher: “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

No, kindness is not a word that spontaneously comes to mind when we think of business, and its acceptance as a workplace virtue is made more quaint by highly salient experiences we have all had with loathsome, capricious bosses who somehow manage to escape detection and, inexplicably, ascend the corporate ladder. The quality we have singled out for study, then, is not an obvious one. Before proceeding further, however, let us briefly say what kindness is not, in order to clear up some common misconceptions. As a Latin proverb suggests, giving an account of what something isn’t helps to clarify what it is.

There Is More to Personality Than Kindness
Leaders exhibit many qualities besides kindness. It is, for example, possible to be hard-nosed and kind, to be cantankerous and kind, to be analytical and kind, or to be gregarious and kind. Kindness comes packaged with many other traits. Thus, leaders’own unique qualities give them a distinctive style. We assert that kindness is part of a good leader’s constitution and that others are able to brush aside some of the other qualities that leaders possess in order to see their compassionate centers. Therefore, many different types of people are kind.
We believe that the endless, and tiresome, search for the perfect leadership personality is terribly misguided and ultimately fails to explain what leaders really do and what makes them effective. It is best to think of kindness as a key ingredient in a robust stew. The character of the stew is defined by all of the ingredients in combination but omit just this one and the fine flavor is lost.

Kind Leaders Aren’t Sissies
Part of the problem is that often when we think of people who are kind, they are sometimes overly so—and too much of a good thing is harmful. These individuals are indulgent and naïve; their benevolence is often the target of calculating, homoeconomicus looking for a free ride or easy gain. By kind, we do not mean sucker or pushover. Nor do we imply a warmly permissive leader whose underlings run wild.

Kindness, like many other traits, has an optimal level that makes it a virtue as opposed to a vice. Too little or too much transforms it into something ugly or suspect. Too much courage can make one foolhardy, too much pride can make one haughty, too much politeness can make one officious, too much love can make one covetous, and too much kindness can make one a dupe.

Kindness Is Not the Same as Likability
Kindness doesn’t preclude a full range of expression, including, at times, displeasure, nor should it be interpreted as excessive amicability. Compare it to the relationship between a parent and child: kindness implies an interpersonal closeness and fondness, but it comes with other baggage. It requires mutual responsibilities that a day at the beach with a buddy does not. This is because parenting goes well beyond common courtesy, the sharing of intimacies, and companionship.

At any given time, a parent can plummet in the likability ratings faster than a discredited televangelist. Parents are supervisors who manage their children with some of the same modus operandi as businesses. There are daily responsibilities and performance expectations that are to be executed and met by people with different capabilities, motives, and temperaments. Every day, like it or not, parents are called upon to get the job done. Whereas evaluations of likability may ebb and flow, it is hard to imagine succeeding in this or any interpersonal endeavor without the presumption of kindness to motivate our best intentions and to temper our worst impulses.

As in business, it often is possible for parents to get results without much skill. It is always possible to make people do things through threats of punishment and brute force. But those parents who repeatedly rely upon such measures would hardly be described as “good.” Even if such tactics never quite reached the level of abuse, the one-dimensional style is the stuff of satire. Getting results in its various forms is not the sole criterion for parental (or managerial) success. Even so, results fed on a strict diet of fear are fleeting. Children, like employees, are discriminating and know when they are beyond the vigilance and control of others, free to do their own thing (or, in extreme cases, get even)—sometimes in spite of themselves. The goal of leadership is never really to just get results, but to increase the value of the company over time using agreeable means.

About the Author(s)

William F. Baker, Ph.D., is President Emeritus of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (Thirteen/WNET and WLIW21). He is also Executive in Residence at Columbia University Business School and University Professor at Fordham University. He lives in New York City.
Michael O'Malley, Ph.D., is Executive Editor for Business, Economics, and Law at Yale University Press and adjunct professor at Columbia University Business School. He lives in Hamden, CT.