Karyn Ross is a consultant, author and coach who has written a book called The Kind Leader (Routledge, 2022). She defines kindness as “an action (or set of actions) connecting a person’s internal feelings of empathy and compassion to others that is undertaken with the purpose of generating a positive effect and outcome for another”. While this sounds good on paper, how can it move from being a feel-good concept to reality? The purpose of this book is to offer leaders practical tips on how to eliminate fear, create trust, and lead with kindness. We bring you six takeaways from this book:
1. Being kind does not make you weak.
This book challenges the idea that kind people are weaklings, get treated like doormats, and are incapable of making tough decisions in situations of crisis.
It highlights how gendered these perceptions are. Kindness is often framed as a feminine trait whereas leadership is usually spoken of as a masculine trait. By disconnecting the two, kindness is regarded as incompatible with leadership. This is association is used to exclude women from leadership roles. Women leaders push themselves to “act like men”, and men in leadership roles subscribe to patriarchal ideas. Ross looks at how kindness and leadership can go together.
2. Kindness is something that you can learn.
Kindness can be cultivated. It is incorrect to think that some people are inherently kind while others are inherently cruel. Humans are not condemned to an unchanging state. We can practise kindness, and imbibe it gradually. We will have to train ourselves. This will be a joy if we notice the benefits of kindness to ourselves and others. As Ross says, “Culture, unkind or kind, isn’t just something that magically appears. It’s something that is created action after action on a daily basis.”
3. You must lead by example.
According to Ross, leaders who want to create a culture of kindness in their organisation should walk the talk. They need to start by being kind when they communicate with the people who report to them. Others in the organisation will take the cue from them. If leaders preach kindness but do not practise it themselves, people will certainly notice the gap. Action also gives a concrete picture of what kindness looks like, and the forms it can take.
4. Always assume positive intent.
Ross points out that how we speak and act towards others is often influenced by “unkind thoughts and assumptions”. We imagine what their intentions are, without checking with them. This leads to a situation where we ascribe negative motives to them. We end up thinking that they are out to cause us inconvenience, discomfort, pain or harm when that may not be on their mind at all. Knee-jerk reactions do not go well with kindness; therefore, kind leaders cannot judge and mistrust quickly. They need to show they assume positive intent.
5. Focus on the means as well as the ends.
If employees are evaluated only using metrics that value productivity, not the process, they are likely to get the impression that relationships are not regarded as important in the organisation. Getting the work done is all that matters; kindness to each other doesn’t. This focus on ends and results, without any reference to means, can generate a culture of fear. Ross writes, “People are never ‘numbers’. Yet they’re often referred to in numerical or non-human terms: head-‘count’, resources, human ‘capital’. Put on your Leader Hat and think about what terms your organisation uses.” This is sound advice to get started. Employees need to see that the organisation’s mission, vision and values statements are put in practice.
6. Use words of encouragement and growth.
Ross offers a powerful quote by someone who remains anonymous in the book: “If speaking kindly to plants makes them grow, imagine what speaking kindly to people can do.”
What happens when leaders speak kindly, when they compliment someone on a presentation or thank them for their commitment to the organisation, or praise them for an innovative solution to a problem?Ross emphasises that when employees feel happy and proud, that mood often lasts throughout the day. It can rub off on others in the organisation, and energise them as well. Some employees take the happy and proud feeling home to their family. Conversely, what happens when leaders speak unkindly, bully, taunt, and humiliate? Contemplating the effect of their words can help leaders embrace a kind-hearted approach.