Kindness in Leadership

Gay Haskins, Mike Thomas and Lalit Johri (eds)
London: Routledge
Publication date: 2018
Price: £29.99

Every so often (and nowhere near often enough) there comes along a book about leadership which challenges us to look again, not just at the subject of leadership, but who we are as leaders.  Are we leading as well as we might? Are we letting down the people who follow us? Can we really claim to be leaders at all?

Kindness in Leadership is one of those books. I should declare an interest and state that I know one of the authors of this book, Gay Haskins, and worked with her at London Business School back in the early 1990s. That, I think, is a good thing. Had I not known Gay I might never have heard of this book, and I would have missed out on some very interesting thinking.

‘Kindness’, as the authors themselves point out, is one of those concepts that often makes people squirm, especially people in positions of leaderships. Aren’t leaders supposed to be tough? Don’t they have to make hard decisions, sometimes without regard for the human feelings of those involved? Aren’t determination and ruthlessness, rather than kindness, the most important traits in a leader?

It depends, say the authors, on what you mean by ‘kindness’. In the opening chapter they explore the concept and conclude that, far from implying softness or lack of determination, kindness really means taking other people’s feelings into account.  In an excellent chapter entitled ‘Kindness in Leadership at Work, Gay Haskins and Mike Thomas point out that leaders are increasingly being urged to get in touch with their own feelings – but not those of others.

Over the past 25 years there has been an increasing articulation of the importance of emotional intelligence, mindfulness and compassion and their positive role in organisations. They are seen as important in alleviating stress and encouraging greater awareness of emotions, feelings and well-being… There has been little mention, however, of the specific importance of kindness in organisational functionality.

They go on to provide several case studies of organisations where kindness does play a role in leadership, including John Lewis, Nationwide and LinkedIn. The attributes of a kind leader are said to be compassion, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility and humour. We are familiar with four of these, I would say, but how many people talk about gratitude in leadership, let alone humour? In fact, say the authors, humour plays an important role in leadership. Without humour, it is hard to imagine kindness.

A chapter on perspectives from women leaders offers an insight that I suspect will make most people blink. We are accustomed to think of men being hard and ruthless and women as more kind and compassionate; but actually, according to research from the Max Planck Institute, it is the other way around. Men are more likely to be naturally kind, while women are more likely to self-report kindness.

Reading on, it becomes clear that this difference can be explained by different perceptions of what kindness is. Men are more likely to think of kindness in terms of kind acts; if someone is behaving in a kind way, that means they are kind. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to see ‘kindness as something within us – in our being. It is part of our spirits. It manifests itself in our behaviour, but not in “act” to be brought out as needed.’ There is a strong similarity here with virtue ethics. The virtuous person, says Aristotle, is one who is virtuous in thought and deed, not just someone who acts in a virtuous way.

Another chapter by Mike Thomas and Caroline Rowland tackles the issue of fairness and equity, and asks, ‘Should kindness have a place in the boardroom?’ Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes, but the reasons behind the answer are not as simple as they seem. If the principle of kindness – considering the needs and wants of other people – were implemented in board decisions, this would go a long way to closing the trust gap between directors and employees. Thomas and Rowland talk about the pay gap and how to close it, but the implications for internal relationships more generally are clear. Kindness can help to generate trust, and trust in turn is the basis for successful relationships, greater commitment, adherence to common ethical and moral standards and much, much more.

Ultimately, Kindness in Leadership asks as many questions as it answers (the most of important of which being, ‘If kindness is so important, why aren’t more of us doing it?’). But that too is a good thing. There is a debate to be had here, about how to integrate the principles of kindness into leadership without sacrificing the need to make hard decisions. Can we be kind and tough at the same time?  The answer again is yes; the problem of how we do it still needs to be solved. That is the issue we now need to address.

Morgen Witzel
Fellow, Exeter Centre for Leadership, University of Exeter Business School

Twitter: @MorgenWitzel