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Dr Greg Morgan explains how if you want to change your organisation's culture then you need to ask yourself how close the leadership path you think you are on is to the one you are actually on.

Are you too kind to be a leader?

Lucy McCarthy takes a look at the connection between kindness, strength and leadership.

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Are you too kind to be a leader?​

Are you one of those people sometimes accused of being too kind to lead or perhaps you have wondered if a kind person can be strong enough for the rigours of leadership? What is the connection between kindness, strength and leadership?

Kindness is a choice made by those with a generous disposition, and is shaped through mindfulness: the language used by kind people is appreciative and optimistic, and stems from a well-spring of gratitude for and valuing of shared humanity. Kind people readily recognise and respond to the good in others, whereas the opposite – meanness – can be seen in those who delight in the perceived deficits of others in order to feed a craving for affirmation of their being and a desire for superiority.

I suggest that kindness, based on the etymology of ‘kin’ (Old English for family) is a fundamental quality that binds individuals together and provides a sense of caring, purpose and fulfilment. This way of being generally begins in homes where wise families help children learn the qualities of gentleness, sharing, empathy, gratitude, patience, respect and tolerance. These are powerful dispositions that establish a mindset of contribution and social responsibility. Positive psychologist, Martin Seligman reminds us that in acts of kindness towards others we contribute to our own happiness. A kind and positive disposition towards others provides a sense of hope and optimism which generates energy and possibilities.

It is important also to distinguish the concept of kindness, with its strength and rigour, from the notion of ‘nice’ (Old French for folly, foolish behaviour). Niceness often has a ‘beige-ness’ about it, a sense of being inauthentic and expedient. It represents a superficial striving for self-serving approval rather than, for example, the deep valuing of others we see when people respond to their own personal loss during a disaster by focusing on what they can do for others. This sense of being 'other-focused' (Robert E Quinn) rests at the heart of kindness and illustrates the strength kindness can invoke. I think of the spirit of 2016 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, who transformed her grief over the devastating loss of her beloved son into a campaign to raise awareness and to protect others. Her remarkable leadership brought the Australian community together to focus on the core value of cherishing our children and the building of a safe community in which they will thrive.

As local and global citizens, the focus on kinship reminds us that in our families, schools and communities, there is far more that unites us than separates us. Our kinship is manifested in what we share and it is true leadership to highlight this sharing as a platform for responding to our differences.

Leadership based on kindness focuses on noticing, sharing and nurturing the successes and talents of others. Such leaders know that this approach, far from diminishing their leadership, amplifies positive emotion and builds relationships. Kind leaders celebrate the seemingly small wins which, like the first steps of a child, can represent risk-taking, trust, and a willingness to be vulnerable as the basis for learning and further growth.

Kindness in leadership speaks the language of joy, laughter and the lessons of mistakes well learned. While such leaders tell the truth and set high standards, and offer support for all, they create human stories of struggle, imperfection, endeavour and collaboration towards a shared goal. They support inclusive over competitive approaches and base their interactions on the presumption of positive intent, and this is what they generally receive in return for their trust.

The legacy of kindness shown is more kindness, compassion, trust and commitment. What a magnificent basis for a culture of aspiration, inspiration and success! These qualities generate energy whereas the possibly easier and self-focused option of cynicism, selfishness, and blaming others depletes energy and potential, while skulking in the helplessness of victimhood.

It can take great courage and strength to lead with kindness, and embrace the vulnerability of trusting others. Kind leaders make profound connections at the most human level by establishing strong relationships as the basis for a culture of accountability and high standards. They take responsibility not only for their own happiness, success and future. They strive also to contribute to a civil and caring community.

If you see what needs to be done and do it; if you are unhappy with how things are for you and your community, and change them; if you see someone who needs help and help them to help themselves, you are kind and strong enough to lead. In Brene Brown’s words, you are enough.

An irony of kind leadership is that some might perceive it as weak, warm-and-fuzzy and soft. ‘She had it coming but the boss missed a great opportunity to tear strips off her’; ‘he’s weak as water – just turns the other cheek and won’t stand up’. However, kind leadership is far removed from weak leadership’s face-saving, principle-compromising, expedient shallowness. It requires toughness to see beyond a tempting sharp retort or expression of frustration to that longer game of remaining resolute on core values and desired outcomes, and building trust, confidence and loyalty. In the words of William Shakespeare, Henry V Act 3 Scene 6, “… when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”

Ultimately, kindness is a choice. At its most inspirational it is an unconditional choice. Meanness of spirit, intolerance and impatience are easy; as is resorting to the power of title, privilege or position; as also is being ‘nice’. The strength of the ‘kindness choice’ is that it is a ‘long game’ and often requires us to reach for what is highest in us, offering the greatest potential outcomes for all.

Lucy McCarthy is an expert in the field of leadership.

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