August 21

Cultivating Kindness in Leadership


I’ve always wanted a personalized license plate. The state where I live, Virginia, has the highest number of personalized plates in the country. One in four. Each year when it was time to renew my registration, I took the easy route and renewed online instead of personalizing the plate, but I often contemplated what my personalization would be if and when I decided to get one.

BOYMOM? HRLDR? COACH? What would I put out there for all the world to see? This year, while pondering the personalized plate, I was reading Colin Powell’s book, It Worked for Me, and this excerpt really struck me.

Powell tells a story about a parking garage where the attendants were working for minimum wage. He noticed the employees had to stack the cars because of the tight space. He wondered how they chose which car would get out first. (Spoiler alert – it was NOT by the personalized license plates.) When Powell inquired about it, the attendants told him that when customers drive in, if they smile, they’re the first to get out. If they look straight ahead and don’t acknowledge the employee, they’re going to be the last to get out.

At the next staff meeting he held, Powell told his senior leaders, “you can never err by treating everyone with respect and a kind word.” A four-star general and life long military man talks about being kind? At a staff meeting? Is that strong leadership? How can that be?

And I began to simmer in it. I could not let it go. I obsessed over it. Why?  Because it turns out that kindness is a core value for me, something that touches me deeply and underpins my view of the world.  I began to ponder – Is authentic kindness possible, alongside productivity and profits? What if all leaders viewed employees not just as workers who complete a task, but as people who also deserve care and respect?

Kindness does not equal weakness. Kindness is a discipline. If there is anything all the events of the last 18 months have taught us, it’s that kindness needs to be leveraged.

How can kindness be leveraged in the workplace?

As leaders, the discipline of kindness enables you to build relationships, which ultimately leads to trust. Without trust as a foundation, employees may outwardly seem like they are following a leader, but they aren’t as likely to follow privately in a way that is consistent or genuine. Trust yields so much more than just compliance – trust promotes an open dialogue and exchange of thoughts and ideas, which ultimately provides a forum for giving and receiving honest feedback. Honest feedback is in itself a kindness that promotes a deep level of trust.

Kindness is communicating clear direction and letting employees know what to expect. Once specific expectations are outlined, kindness means stepping out of the way – so employees can step up and perform. Kindness is letting employees learn from mistakes they make and helping them see what they could do differently next time. Engage in meaningful conversations around how to fail, and more importantly, how to recover from failure.

Showing care is perhaps one of the best demonstrations of kindness. When leaders put others’ needs first, employees feel more loyal and committed. Kindness is the gift of your time even when your day is pulling you in a variety of directions.. So often we rush through conversations without listening intently or being truly present. Listening with an attentive, open, and quiet mind means prioritizing the person who is speaking rather than personal preoccupations like that proposal that must get out the door. Your undivided attention is an investment in relationship building. Kind leaders – great leaders are intentional about attention.

No one wants to be taken for granted, yet it’s so easy to neglect adequate thanks. Kindness is displaying gratitude to an employee for their work. According to a study by Bersin & Associates, companies that provide recognition have 31% lower voluntary turnover rates than companies that don’t.  And it needs to be personal. In a recent conversation with an employee at a company I was consulting for, he told me he found out that he had gotten a bonus by looking at his pay stub. I commented that it must have been a nice surprise. “Yes,” he replied that it was a nice surprise, but he expressed disappointment that he didn’t get a verbal “thank you” or have a conversation about how his work was appreciated. What he really wanted was a “thank you” on a personal level, not just dollars in a paycheck.

Cultivating kindness helps leaders be relatable, trusted, and effective. It sets the tone for a company culture that makes a difference far beyond the bottom line. Powell also states in his book to always show more kindness than necessary because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.  A great suggestion that rings so true for today. People need our kindness.

A great suggestion for all of us. I finally got that personalized license plate which serves as my daily reminder:  O2BKIND



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