In two words: Be kind! Life is hard. Change is hard. And because life keeps changing, leadership is very hard.
In a hard world, it is difficult for us to take the time to be kind. And one of the things we all agree needs to change to make things better—the economy, of course—is moving at a snail’s pace. For some reason, this causes us to want to rush everything else. Hurry, hurry! Maybe if we get everything else done faster it might balance out the slow recovery. If we can just move faster, maybe we can make up for lost time. Have we forgotten, in all the rush, to just be nice?
Read Lisa Harrington's previous column, "Integrity is the Motivator For Success."
Kindness can’t be rushed. To be kind, you need both emotional flexibility and strength. You have to be strong enough to resist that cultural urge to rush yourself and others. It takes someone strong to assume the best of others. Flexibility can’t be beat for reacting to a quickly changing environment with grace. Gaining strength takes time. Learning to be flexible takes time. If you don’t believe me, try a yoga class. Because both of these traits are invaluable in applying kindness to your actions, being "in a hurry" isn’t helpful. Simply stated: Kindness is a discipline; maybe it’s even a lost art. My mom taught me this; I bet yours did, too.
Is this a behavior that we develop, define and practice? Do we go to school on this? Have we read books, watched training DVDs? Did you download a podcast recently about how to be a kinder manager? I doubt it. The last time we heard about kindness in that way, we were hearing about a thousand points of light. Isn’t kindness just something we expect in an epitaph? "She was kind, she was a gentle soul. May she rest in peace."
Assuming we agree that kindness is a virtue worth pursuing in this life, even if we are the big boss, how do we cultivate it? What can we do to be better right now? Is real kindness possible along with profit and efficiency? We all know what kindness looks like. It’s something we enjoy from others, and talk about, and there are even bumper stickers with miniature philosophies about it. We think of it as something to do at home, though, or at church. But do we even dare to expect kindness at work?
How difficult is it to practice the behavior ourselves, especially at work? Is it, in fact, something that we can consciously develop, model and consistently apply? I think so. And I believe, based on long experience, that you can even make money despite a kindness philosophy.
Let’s use KIND as an acronym to help us remember.
Well, this one is obvious. Just breathe, think and consider treating everyone the way you would a newcomer, the elderly, or a child. Aren’t we naturally kind to strangers and babies? We naturally give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are doing their best. And yet at work, and at home, perhaps, we are not always so generous. Why not assume the best of our employees and co-workers?
Our first and most basic instinct is to survive at all costs. We can’t change that part of our brain. We can, however, direct it. First, as managers, we need to let go of the preconceived notion of the leader as master and king. Humans are herd animals, so if we allow ourselves to consider the survival of the herd as imperative to our own survival, it will help us come to the correct mental posture for kindness. We should take care of each other.
I can think of no better example right now that some of the stories coming out of Japan in the aftermath of the tsunami. Self-appointed neighborhood guardian troops are going door-to-door to check on neighbors. Anonymous donors are leaving food and water on doorsteps. There has been almost no looting. The natural herd instinct would tell us that the best leaders are the ones who will sacrifice their own lives or situations for that of their followers. The best coaches will carry the water to their teams.
Nurturing is a natural instinct for most people as well. It’s a behavior that we need to polish up soon as managers. Our world is about to change. The boomers are going to be gone from the workplace very soon. Nurturing the new folks in the workplace will be a part of every manager’s life. Consider the new graduating classes in the past couple of years. According to sources at IIABA’s InVEST, the graduating class of 2009 was the largest class ever in U.S. recorded history. Similar numbers are being reported for 2010 and 2011. As a KIND leader you’ll need to nurture those young minds in a way that will be completely foreign to most of us boomers and Xers. There is no need to repeat the mantras and methods that are so abundant on the topic of generational differences. The point here is that being kind and nurturing to those young people is the first step to tapping all the wonderful potential that they have. All the communication and understanding of the generational differences will go out the door if kindness is not part of the mix.
Dare to trust
Dare to trust
Letting go of the reins is tough. In difficult times, the usual management style is to hold tighter, get stricter and allow less freedom. This is backward. In hard times, people want security, but not a noose. In fact, the freedoms and flexibility that most humans crave, and which the newer generations especially need, are often a kindness that management can show to employees with no direct cost to the company. We measure ROI in so many ways that we begin to think that everything has to be measured in dollars and cents. That works fine for nearly everything we do. But some things cannot be measured in that way. Long-term results take long-term strategies, and some of those include methods that cause change to come in millimeters, or in pennies, if you will. Trust is one of those long-term strategies that build people slowly. And for a change, it’s a solution that doesn’t have to break the bank. Allow some remote work, an extra day off or flexibility in the methods used to get job done. Most employees want to do a good job. It’s tough to let go, because we’ve been burned by the small percentage that have taken advantage. We want tight reins to avoid that pain again. It does feel personal when that happens. In the end, though, that pulls us in the wrong direction. To get the horse to move left, you push with your right foot. It is not instinctive, but it works. When you show trust, you earn it. Take the dare.