It all began in a blustery autumn about 8 years ago. I was coaching attorneys, doctors and other executives, and I was interested in understanding the traits of leadership. I had some natural leaders in the bunch and I was watching them and their behavior to see how they ran their offices and lives. I watched them give feedback, make project plans, and push for results. I did not use the scientific method, admittedly, but I started to shape some ideas about what made certain leaders stand out.
I formulated a hypothesis that good leaders were tough, meaning they were tenacious, hard-edged, persistent, and definitely on the unsympathetic side. Natural leaders who could get work done were hard on their people.
There was a leadership study released about the same time which showed that a “drive for results” was the most important determining factor in executive success. Drive is the operative word, right? I was getting somewhere. These are the “doers” in life, and if they have to take a few people out along the way, so be it. These natural leaders knew how to rant, stomp their feet, jump up and down, and GET RESULTS! Some of them were underhanded, sly, even a bit vicious, but I could never argue with those results.
I kept this viewpoint for a long time, coaching many people to be tough, to give difficult feedback with pitiless precision, to attack weak points in the organization with ardor. It worked to a great degree. Tough executives made names for themselves and sent their companies’ results into the stratosphere.
In the spring of 2009, after the economy was in full collapse, I noticed something that shook my stable data about executive competencies. These drivers, these “tough” executives were uniformly looking for work. Nearly all of them had been let go in the downturn. Interestingly, some others who had not taken the “toughness” route and had worked on other competencies were still around. I realized it might be time to reinvent my coaching style.
I started to take a different look at executives at that time. I dug into an objective look at the executives who survived the downturn, and I want to announce a new hypothesis. Executives who are tough with results but kind with people succeed longer and more often. Yes, I said it. Kindness matters.
A recent example gives us window into this. A CEO of a mid-sized company was down-sizing through all of 2009 and 2010, and he started to lose his hair rather rapidly. I asked him one day what was stressing him out so badly and he commented that firing people took an enormous toll. He never did stop thinking about how it affected the families and lives of those who had left. He was having trouble sleeping, and had seen his doctor for several stress tests. There was nothing physically wrong with him, but he looked and felt old and tired.
I decided to do an experiment with him and asked him to take several kind actions per week as his work allowed. I had him make a list of small kindnesses he could do that would have an impact on his workplace morale. One of his items was to institute a bagel breakfast for the administrative staff every other Friday. He paid for the bagels personally to keep the company budget stable. Then he made a point of complimenting the good work of his assistant on a more frequent basis. He listed 15 separate kind actions he could take over the coming months. Curiously, his hair stopped falling out. Even more curiously, his company started doing better too. A statistician could argue that the correlation is meaningless. That is fine by me. This is not a mathematical argument so much as a statement from the heart. Our experiment in kindness made a difference for everyone involved. Even me.
Perhaps you know an executive who is suffering personally for his own lack of kindness. He is not only hurting himself, but he is hurting his company. Being too “tough”, not having enough kindness, is no sign of strength. It is just a contributor to stress. The times we suffer most are the times we could have been just a bit nicer and we forever wonder why were weren’t.
After all, the last few years were not easy on anyone. We all had it rough. Consider this the next time you have a choice to make: what is the kind thing to do? The kind choice might just bring a smile to your face as well as the face of the person on the other end. After all, what are we doing here in this world anyway? Are we here to make it a miserable experience for others? Must we be hectic, texting-and-driving maniacs who only care about the next dollar? Are 10 more pallets delivered more important than the life and dignity of our fellow colleagues? It is about time we got our priorities straight in this country. Get results, certainly. Push hard for them. Hold high standards for your people. But hold them with kindness too. You might find it gets you further than you think.