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Leading With Kindness

Let's destroy the myth that kindness is weakness.

Key points

  • Contrary to popular opinion, kindness doesn't make someone weak. Kind leaders are just as capable of making tough decisions.
  • Great leaders, such as Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr., have changed the world with kindness and compassion.
  • Certain steps can be taken to improve workplace dynamics with kindness, like avoiding blame and treating one another with respect.

This post was written by Eva Ritvo, M.D., and Lina Haji, Psy.D.

When you think of leadership, what comes to your mind? Do you visualize power? Strength? Direction? What about kindness? Compassion? And understanding?

Leading with kindness

For some, kindness can be viewed as a sign of weakness. But we believe it is exactly the opposite. The world has collectively endured a mass trauma, and leading with kindness is more important than ever.

Throughout history, many key figures have led with kindness and successfully changed the world. Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana, and Martin Luther King Jr. are names that come to mind. Kindness was a key ingredient as they inspired and guided millions of people around the globe.

Effective leadership requires an in-depth understanding of the needs of the people in the organization. Thus, communication and active listening are necessary. Leaders must get to know their colleagues and staff, their strengths and weaknesses. Kindness is a key way to form connections and can make the job of the leader easier and more effective.

Leaders who manage with kindness are as capable of making strong and even tough business decisions according to T-Three, a leadership consulting company based in the United Kingdom. “The leaders who get the most out of their people are the leaders who care most about their people,” claims Simon Sinek, an instructor of strategic communications at Columbia University.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was named one of the top 50 leaders according to Fortune Magazine (2021). Justice Ginsburg was a powerful figure who was known for being respectful, strong, and resilient. She displayed an extraordinary amount of kindness through her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia, her colleague and friend who shared the ideological opposite views.

A study from the University of Warwick (2016) found that happy people displayed a 12 percent increase in productivity. Along those same lines, companies which invested in employee support, such as Google, found a 37 percent employee satisfaction increase. In other words, kindness and support pay off on multiple levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected organizations in a way the required leaders to reimagine their role and step up to lead in a manner they had never experienced before. Times of uncertainty often lead to fear, loss of productivity, and worker dissatisfaction. At the same time, uncertainty can present an opportunity for leaders and their organizations to find new niches and adaptations and to thrive.

The difference may lie in a leader’s ability to remain in control and make good decisions while navigating white waters. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 report (an online survey which polled 34,000 individuals between October and November 2019), 63 percent of respondents said they believed information from their employer about the pandemic rather than trusted government websites or traditional media. A strong leader can seize this opportunity and foster immense positivity by being transparent, trustworthy, and kind.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern remarked that one of the criticisms she's faced over the years is that "I'm not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because if I'm empathetic, it means I'm weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong."

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been criticized for her manner of leading, she successfully all but eradicated community transmission of COVID-19, while most of the rest of the world struggled. Ardern skillfully led New Zealand through the pandemic, and its citizens quickly resumed daily life without masks and without the need for social distancing. Kindness was a major component in Ardern’s effective response as she spoke directly to New Zealanders with warmth and empathy. She eased their anxiety by getting them on board with early lockdowns, speaking to New Zealand’s citizens regularly and delivering clear, consistent, and soothing messages. Prime Minister Ardern’s leadership resulted in fewer than 2,000 cases and 25 deaths due to COVID-19.

Forbes Magazine (2021) published an article which stated, “Empathy, vulnerability, and flexibility, for example, are leadership qualities that have always been important but are now non-negotiable table-stakes thanks to 2020.” The article goes on to discuss employees’ desire to be seen and heard during the pandemic. While technology certainly helped immensely in facilitating this goal, the human connection must still be nurtured by leaders, managers, and co-workers. Understanding and appreciating the difficulties individuals were experiencing during the pandemic proved to be essential in creating a new culture of working from home.

Kim Cameron’s doctoral work at the University of Miami focused on the positive relationship that can emerge in organizations as a result of certain practices. Along with Emma Seppela, Ph.D., at Stanford, she recommends the following to steps to improve the workplace:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes.
  • Inspiring one another at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.

As we progress through the next phases of the pandemic and reenter society, our hope is that our leaders will choose kindness. We have all been traumatized, and a bit of kindness will go a long way to heal the wounds of this trying time.

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