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Why Kindness Should Be A Required Leadership Characteristic

By Ray B. Williams, National Post
August 09, 2009

The criticisms of leaders in business and government in recent times often focus on issues of integrity, morality and emotional intelligence. North American culture still is drawn to the individualistic, strong man image of leaders and leaders who have analytical ability, decision-making skills or proficiency in execution. So-called "soft-skills" or traits, such as kindness and compassion in leaders have often been seen as weaknesses.

Yet there is increasing evidence that questions that image. Traits such as kindness in leaders are not just desirable, they are essential.

In a great article by Illan Simons in Psychology Today, she talks about authors Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, in their book, On Kindness, look into the issue of kindness. They ask why people generally see a person who is "independent" as a strong person, but someone who is kind is weaker or less intelligent. Phillips and Taylor argue that when we're children, we idealize ourselves with the world, not having yet developed our brain's frontal cortex to know the difference between ourselves and the world. As we grow up, we separate sense of self from others, and learn among other things, self-interest, aggression and defensiveness. But, because humans are social animals, we develop "meaning" in our lives, so we can go beyond self-interest and be vulnerable again. The authors argue that that can only happen through collaboration, which demands a giving and taking of gifts without guarantee of reward. They propose that kindness is one of the highest modalities of human behavior because it moves us to a wiser willingness for vulnerability.

Where does behavior such as compassion and kindness show up in the workplace? You will rarely find the word or even a focus on it mentioned in most training programs for employees or leaders. William Baker and Michael O'Malley, authors of Leading With Kindness argue that the practice of kindness in corporations has a positive impact on bottom line business results. They argue that a management style, which could be called transformational, that has these traits--compassion, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility and humor--improves employee performance and employee retention.

In an article in Psychology Today by Judith Sills, she proposes that while people would have different definitions of kindness as it applies to the workplace, they all have a common thread: it is a step beyond respect or fair play, a step out in front of the corporate HR compliance manual. It is personal, thoughtful and caring.

Happiness expert, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, reported as a result of several experiments with people where they performed random acts of kindness, that the acts actually were the cause of the subjects feeling happier. But there are good deeds and... good deeds. Passing out "smiley-face stickers" are saying things like" have a nice day" does not have the same impact of choosing deeds that strengthen social ties, according to Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and author of The Happiness Hypothesis.

In my article in the National Post, March 19, 2008, entitled Why Leaders Need Soft Skills, I cited a major study by the Center For Creative Leadership, which identified leader traits such as trust, empathy and compassion were necessary for good leadership. And in my article in the Financial Post, March 22, 2009, entitled Leading With Kindness--Are You Kidding? I reported that 12 states in the U.S. are now considering laws that allow workers to sue their bosses for "threatening, intimidating, or humiliating behavior, verbal abuse or sabotage of a person's work performance."

Kindness doesn't mean the leader is a sissy, a pushover or sucker, nor is the kind leader someone who let's employees run wild. Kindness is not the same as likeability. Rather, kindness implies an interpersonal closeness that comes with responsibility, vulnerability and a an absence of self-interest. There is more than adequate evidence now that leaders who practice kindness, and where kindness is valued at work, create workplaces that people want to work in and are also very productive.

Ray B. Williams is Co-Founder of Success IQ University and President of Ray Williams Associates, companies located in Vancouver and Phoenix, providing leadership training, personal growth and executive coaching services. Ray can be reached at

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