Is kind leadership an oxymoron?

Is kind leadership an oxymoron?

Christian Sharp

Christian Sharp

When you think about successful and well-known leaders in the business world, which words spring to mind? How about strong? Decisive? Innovative? Disruptive? How about wealthy or unscrupulous?

What about ‘kind’? Did that make the top ten – or even the top twenty?

In our experience, kindness is rarely seen as a positive attribute for a leader. Despite an increasingly woke business world, where there’s a growing focus on sustainability and transparency, simple kindness is still often dismissed as a ‘nice to have’ that organisations just can’t afford or don’t prioritise.

Let’s unpack that a bit more, because as a human, there seems to be something wrong here. Why isn’t kindness desirable in the leadership community?

Show me the money!

It’s a really easy question to answer, and unfortunately, it’s not pretty. More often than not, ‘kind’ can be associated with words like ‘nice’, and if we’re being brutally honest, some see kindness as ‘weak’. There’s often an ‘attitude hangover’ from the eighties, nineties and noughties where leaders model themselves on figures like the Wolf of Wall Street or other characters from fast-talking macho TV shows or cultures.

Similarly, there’s often a feeling that kind people get taken for granted or taken advantage of. The anchor of London Real, Brian Rose, puts it neatly “[that] if we hang out with lower status monkeys, we're going to go down the tube with them" – as if there’s some kind of contagious ‘neediness’ virus that’ll spread from people who need help to those helping them. When you think about it, this barely makes logical sense – if you’re the one giving, you’re not needy by definition.

That said, there’s little doubt that the business world is a tough place; leaders have to make difficult decisions, conduct disciplinary hearings, make people redundant, get the best deal for the organisation, and stay smart. It’s clear to see why the default path for leadership is often being as cut-throat with your employees as you are with your competitors, but it’s not the only way to be.

Is it possible to be kind and a leader?

It’s a horrible experience to lead a round of redundancies or close a facility, but it’s possible to do it with kindness, treating employees with respect, as humans. Your competitors might profit from ‘dirty deals’ for years – but in the age of transparency, they might also be found out. After all, McDonald’s was completely untouched during the ‘horsemeat scandal’ of 2013, despite reporters’ best efforts to dig up dirt.

Similarly, a CEO can be undermined, even destroyed, by a review on Glassdoor or an allegation of misconduct.

Being kind is a long-term investment in your brand. Geoffrey Colon, Head of Brand Studio at Microsoft Advertising, recently gave a talk at CES, where he mentioned that Satya Nadella is encouraging all Microsoft employees to not only think about what they can do, but what they should do. Essentially his line of thinking was that brands can’t ‘just’ do a good job anymore; they have to serve a long-term purpose and solve a real human problem. This means staying relevant – and perhaps more importantly, staying profitable. This is a serious reputational consideration – and from this perspective, establishing kindness as a corporate value makes serious sense.

It doesn’t mean being weak; quite the opposite. Being kind is often having difficult conversations sooner, but in a fashion that treats your employees like human beings.

To give another example, when Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors in 2014, she had to deal with the recalling of over two million cars after issues resulted in the tragic loss of life. Despite the awful circumstances, Barra communicated with a kindness, respect and presence that firmly established her as one of the greatest leaders in industry today. Most of the press articles covering Mary’s statements at the time begin with her opening comments, which express deep sympathy for the victims, before being candid about the root causes of the issues.

Barra took responsibility. She expressed candid regret, and she explained what she would do to not only address the immediate concerns, but also the systemic problems across GM. Her approach was kind, but it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t weak.

But Barra wasn’t only a great leader with the big issues; she reputedly changed GM’s entire dress code from a long-winded document to ‘dress appropriately’, treating staff with the trust and respect to make their own decisions.

None of these policies are the sign of a weak, unsuccessful leader. In fact, under Barra’s leadership, GM’s share price has been consistently higher than prior to her joining. Similarly, even the most bullish of leaders – such as Oren Klaff, who trains leaders to pitch to Venture Capitalists – admits that he can be ‘nice’. Opinionated, of course, strong when he needs to be, but still ‘nice’!

Furthermore, a general change is coming; some leaders who established themselves in earlier decades are learning new values or handing over the reins to younger, more woke generations – but it takes time. However, there is evidence that younger generations are calling out antiquated behaviour more often in the ‘OK Boomer’ movement. Admittedly, this isn’t the kindest way to do it, but nonetheless, evidence that there is a significant generational change coming!

In fairness, many kind leaders do exist in older generations – at Firefly we’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best people in the industry.

Remind me why I should be kind?

There’s really only one reason to be a kind leader: it’s the right thing to do. But if that’s not enough for you, here’s a few other factors to consider.

- According to the University of Warwick, happy people are 12% more productive. In fact, a Google study found that increasing employee support resulted in a 37% rise in employee job satisfaction.

- Satisfied employees stay in their roles, and they work harder. Companies have both ‘character’ reputations (‘do I like you?’) and ‘capability’ reputations (‘are you going to do what you said you’d do?’) and if you erode the former then you’re purely dependent on the latter. This means that people are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when your products and services fail – so it’s beneficial to have a good character reputation.

- Applying kindness to the wider business function and environment pays; funds that specialise in clean energy, water and forestry like Pictet Environmental Opportunities have seen a 50% rise in value in the last four years.

- Customers appreciate kindness – and this attitude comes from the top. Ritz Carlton hotels are famous for small but meaningful acts that drive repeat business – again and again.

- Kindness drives return business, engaging customers – and this brings a 23% higher ‘share of wallet’, compared to competitors, according to Gallup research

Get involved, or get out of the C-suite

Not all leaders choose to actively motivate their staff, instead relying on pay and benefits to do that for them but for those that do, it’s often portrayed as a binary choice between the carrot and the stick. In the twenties, it’s not that simple anymore; after all, while a kind, firm, fair leader can motivate staff, they also empower staff to motivate themselves, supporting them, being an ally and an advocate for them. This falls somewhere between the stick and the carrot. [Ed. A ‘stirrot’? No? A ‘carrick’? I’ll stop.]

Either way, kind leadership is a step forward to a better brand of business, one that is more respectful to its employees, its suppliers and the world at large. And in this politically volatile, economically uncertain age, that’s something that we sorely need.



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