Spoiler: the answer is yes. The leadership stereotype of tough, single-minded, and all-powerful is thankfully in the main a thing of the past. But when we think about leaders, kindness is still probably not the first quality that springs to mind.
As Jacinda Ardern puts it:
“We’ve placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength – that we probably have assumed that it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy. And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that’s probably the quality we need the most.”
In her 6-year tenure Ardern has embodied a new style of politics. A kinder, more compassionate approach that stands in stark contrast to some of the more populist leaders currently on the world stage.
Kindness in business
But is running a business compatible with kindness? It’s a question this episode of the BBC podcast The Anatomy of Kindness looks at. The entire series is a great listen and has some fascinating insights based on the world’s largest in-depth study of kindness created with a team at the University of Sussex.
96% of respondents to the study said that being kind at work was important to them and those who had a kind boss were more likely to stay at their company for at least another year.
Results that are backed up by evidence from Joe Folkman, a psychometrician based in the United States. He studied the feedback ratings of 51,000 leaders and those rated by their staff as more likeable also tended to be rated highly on effectiveness. Whereas leaders with a low level of likeability were also seen as low on effectiveness. There was a clear correlation between likeability and outcomes like customer satisfaction, turnover, growth, and employee engagement.
So maybe the question should really be can we afford not to be a kind leader?
A culture of kindness
The hospitality industry is perhaps not one you’d assume to be kind, but Tom Elliot co-founder of Pizza Pilgrims is flying the flag for kindness and a more thoughtful approach. As he puts it in the Anatomy of Kindness:
"I can't stand the word ‘boss’, that awful, implied authority that's not earned. I say it and you do it."
But for him to be a kind leader it takes a kind culture:
"The danger is to look at kindness as a one-to-one thing, but really it's a one to team, and team to team thing. It's more of a web like experience.”
The truth is to lead with kindness you need to create a safe, supportive, and empathetic environment. It’s something that Google found when they were looking into how to build the ‘perfect team’. Their Project Aristotle research showed the importance of human bonds developed through listening to one another and that sensitivity to feelings and needs was key to a high-functioning team.
What it means to be a kind leader
So we know kindness is important in leadership and that it needs to be part of a wider culture of kindness, but what does a kind leader look like?
One thing it doesn't mean is 'nice'. A kind leader definitely can be nice, but they aren't one and the same. It might be perceived as 'nice' to let a member of the team duck out of a tricky client call, but the kind thing to do would be to listen to their concerns and to support them to navigate the challenge.
Leading with kindness can take many forms. Listening and withholding judgement, being fully present in interactions, taking time to understand challenges and validate feelings, supporting and helping others.
It takes empathy, vulnerability, and self-awareness. It takes the courage to have tough conversations. And it takes time. It’s definitely less efficient in the short term to take the time to lead with kindness, but in the long term you'll benefit from a more engaged and committed team and increased job satisfaction and retainment.
But as Professor Robin Banerjee, architect of The Kindness Test put it ‘When the going gets tough it's the kind that get going’. And with Gareth Southgate’s story of compassionate leadership about to be immortalised in Hollywood, it’s clear they also get a great deal of success…