"What's the most important quality in a leader?"
In a recent Him For Her dinner I attended, this was one of the ice breaker questions our host asked us to use when introducing ourselves to the other guests at the table.
The answers were widely varied: curiosity, valuing people who are different from them, authenticity, long term thinkers, being gifted with making things simple...
But what really is the most important quality in a leader?
How about kindness. When did we all forget about kindness? When did we stop valuing kindness?
I would argue that kindness is one of the most undervalued leadership qualities in our world today.
When did we decide kindness was not an essential trait of a great leader? When did we stop being kind as leaders? I'll tell you when...
When we rewarded leaders for their great results and consistently overlooked their unkind behavior. When we decided kindness was a synonym for pushover, weakness, inefficiency, and softness. When we decided we were too busy to be kind. We have a business to run after all, so what has kindness got to do with any of it?
Kind people don't get shit done. Mean people, who rule with fear and have a Game of Thrones style management (as Adam Neumann of WeWork was described recently in an article in Fast Company) are the ones who really drive results. And results are what shareholders value.
So we devalue kindness.
The question is, can women even afford to be a kind leader? I walk the line, the careful dance of being too nice or too witchy. Of being too trusting or too controlling. Of being too compassionate and being the ice queen/dragon lady/the Devil wearing Prada. (Disclaimer: I don't actually own any Prada clothing, but it does have a nice ring to it.)
The question I would instead ask is, how can we afford not to be kind?
In case you didn't get the memo, people don't stay at a job for the endless supply of KIND Bars, free caffeine, and access to weekly discounted massages. The vast majority of people stay to work for kind people.
I can lead with kindness. I can be tough and fair. I can have high standards and expectations for my team and those around me.
And I don't have to kick people when they are down. I don't have to make feel people worse than they already do about the mistakes they have made. I don't have to use foul language, threaten, or manipulate. I don't have to rule with fear. I don't have to be unkind to drive results. I just don't. And it's not how I want to lead. I will not be an unkind leader.
We all have our moments. I am not always the kindest version of myself all the time. That's just not possible—I am human after all. But I do try to think about how I can lead with more kindness, compassion, and generosity. How can I show up as a kinder leader?
Kindness comes in all different forms. It's the free smile, the free hello, and the free wave. It's treating people with generosity, empathy, and care. It's about asking people how they are doing and taking a few minutes to actually listen to the response before walking off. It's about bringing humanity back to our workspaces and workplaces.
So please don't mistake my kindness for weakness.
Being kind is my greatest strength—our collective greatest strength—in leadership. This is how we should all want to lead to create a real impact for ourselves and our organizations.
And in the words of Maya Angelou, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget about how you made them feel."
One of the few things I remember from grade school biology is the concept of tropism. In plain language, tropism is the reaction of a living thing, like a plant, towards a stimulus like sunlight or heat. You've likely seen this before but just didn't recognize it for what it was. If you've ever seen the leaves of a potted plant bending towards a windowpane, that's tropism in action. The plant is bending towards the sunlight.
If you've ever seen the leaves of a potted plant bending towards a windowpane, that's tropism in action.
In our everyday lives, we are all inundated with stimuli throughout the day. The driver in front of us that stalls at the yellow light and zooms through the red light, leaving us behind to wait. Or the customer service rep that leaves us on hold for an ungodly amount of time, only for the call to prematurely drop. There are so many examples both common and unique to our individual lives. The trouble begins when we form the habit of responding to everything — particularly negative stimuli. By doing this, our mental peace is disrupted and diverted making us slaves to whatever happens to happen. Much like the plant bending towards sunlight, we oftentimes react and lean into whatever is happening around us. Now take that concept and multiply it by the number of things that can happen in a day, week, or month. What happens to you mentally with so many emotional pivots?
For me, the result is: Restlessness. Anxiety. Sleepness. Mindless Eating. Everything besides peace of mind.
Much like the plant bending towards sunlight, we oftentimes react and lean into whatever is happening around us.
Earlier this year, something pretty trivial happened to me. I'm sure this has happened to you at some point in your life also. I was walking through a door and, as I always do, glanced back and held the door longer and wider than normal for the person coming behind me. My gracious gesture was met with silence — no thank you, no smile, not even a nod. I remember being so annoyed at this travesty of justice. How dare they not acknowledge me and thank me for holding the door? After all, I didn't have to do it. I know I spent the next few hours thinking about it and probably even texted a few friends so that they could join in on my rant and tell me how right I was to be upset. In hindsight, I should not have allowed this pretty petty thing to occupy my mind and heart, but I did. I let it shake my peace.
I've since taken some classes on mindfulness and what I've learned (and I'm still learning) is the art of being aware — being aware of the present and my feelings. Recognizing when I'm triggered towards annoyance or anger gives me the opportunity to take a step back to understand why and assess whether it deserves my attention and energy. We're all human and having emotions is part of the deal but as mindful adults, it's critically important to choose what you're going to care about and let everything else pass along. There are several tools on the market to help with this but the Headspace app has really helped me in my mindfulness journey. The lessons are guided and coupled with some pretty cute animations.
Recognizing when I'm triggered towards annoyance or anger gives me the opportunity to take a step back to understand why and assess whether it deserves my attention and energy.
Over the course of the next week, I'd like to challenge you to pay more attention to your reactions. How aware are you of how you allow your environment to affect you? Are you highly reactive? Do you ruminate for hours or even days on events that are insignificant in your life? If so, practicing a bit of mindfulness may be the way to go.