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The Power of Kindness in Leadership

When it comes to the question of ‘What is good leadership?’, everyone has an opinion, idea, and perception about it. Within less than 0,47 seconds, a Google search of “leadership” returns about 2.6 billion results. Clearly, there’s an information overload out there on how to learn about becoming a better leader.

It may be hard to agree on a prime definition about good leadership but in times of crisis, it is easy to recognize. The Covid-19 pandemic has spread insecurity, fear, uncertainty as well as sickness and death across the globe.

We all have witnessed and experienced many different different leadership styles and approaches amongst the world national leaders on how they handled the crises.

Some have shown very significant acts of ‘how not to do’ things for next time a crisis arises (trust that all of us can insert our best example here), but a few have risen to the moment, demonstrating solutions, courage, empathy, respect for science and natural kindness, and thereby ease and release some of the impact of the pandemic on their people.

My personal favorite who stands out by far as an exceptionally amazing leader, a perfect role model of how to master kindness and empathy in leadership, is Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand.

Not only her message was crystal clear: “These decisions will place the most significant restrictions on New Zealanders’ movements in modern history. But it is our best chance to slow the virus and to save lives.” But it was kind and compassionate: “Please be strong, be kind and united against Covid-19.”

She also managed to talk to all audiences in her country, including children, who probably suffer the most in these uncertain and insecure circumstances. She made a special Easter announcement  and declared that the Tooth Fairy and the Easter bunny were essential workers as her country were battling through the coronavirus.

Her powerful leadership didn’t stop there. Only a few days ago she announced a plan to end widespread period poverty by providing free sanitary products in the country’s schools for young girls.

Her key to success is not a secret, it’s a choice.

In a BBC interview two years ago she said: “It takes courage and strength to be empathetic.” However, she had made a conscious decision to be a “proudly empathetic, compassionately-driven” leader.

She said she was “trying to chart a different path”, explaining, “We teach kindness and empathy and compassion to our children but then we somehow, when it comes to political leadership, want a complete absence of that. So I am trying to chart a different path. That will attract critics. But I can only be true to myself and the form of leadership that I believe in.”

Thinking about it more and more, it triggered a question: is there more to it? Can I find some science or research that can back up that kindness and empathy are essential elements of good leadership?

Arjen Boin, political scientist at Leiden University, has studied the most successful and unsuccessful responses during previous emergencies. He was co-author of a book, The Politics of Crisis Management, that can help us to understand our leaders’ messages during the current emergency.

Overall, Boin argues that the initial message should be delivered quickly, to avoid other contrasting narratives “filling the vacuum”, and with five aims: “It offers a credible explanation of what happened (1), it offers guidance (2), it instils hope (3), shows empathy(4) and suggests that leaders are in control. (5)” If you fail on any one of those, you will begin to lose the public’s confidence.

Another research carried out by Amy Cuddy from the Harvard Business School with her colleagues from the Lawrence University have revealed that even before establishing their own credibility or competence, leaders who project warmth are more effective than people who lead with toughness. In a nutshell: kindness and warmth appears to accelerate trust. Purposeful kindness makes better leaders.

Everybody would agree that random acts of kindness are also important. However, if someone wants to become a better leader, maybe simply being random is just not enough. Personal growth in leadership needs focus and intentional practice on kindness and empathy.

Here are a few things that jumped out from this short research that can help everyone to practice purposeful kindness and empathy:

Kindness starts with you.

Better leadership starts with simple kindness, both in life and at work. Start practicing kindness in your own backyard with the people you deal with everyday. Just by showing up with small gestures of loving kindness to everyone we encounter on a daily basis will lead to a significant difference how people react to us. Often the tiniest sign of kindness pays itself off and is always returned to the giver. Be kind to yourself as well. Practicing self –compassion and celebrate your own successes can be very recharging and empowering and often leads to better self-awareness and self- actualization.

Give support and feedback kindly.

 We all live in a world full of uncertainty and rapid changes surround us. Acknowledging people’s fear and concerns when you interact with them, whether in formal meetings or during “Coffee machine conversation” is becoming increasingly important as leader. Be willing to show some vulnerability yourself and people will respect you for addressing the elephant in the room, and will be more open to hearing what you have to say. Same goes when giving feedback with empathy and kindness. Leaders often have to tell employees when they’re not meeting expectations. These crucial conversations can be hard, but can actually build trust, if their handled with kindness. Show that you have a true positive intent to help an employee become their best, rather than just care for profit.

Smile more often and mean it.

Think of the amazing impact of a genuine smile. If someone smiles sincerely, the warmth becomes reinforcing. This facial feedback also creates a domino effect and it’s contagious.. Humans tend to mirror one another’s nonverbal expressions and emotions, so when we see someone smiling and radiating genuine warmth, we often can’t resist smiling ourselves.

Finally, not only for leaders: Kindness is contagious.

The language of kindness creates connectedness. Letting someone pass first by the door, public transport or in traffic, smiling casually at someone on the street, being kind to a person serving you at the shop or helping a colleague or friend in need…These are small acts of kindness that can help to ease up the heavy weight of fear and anger that we’re all dealing with these days. Even if it’s for a second these signs of kindness will have a positive impact on someone’s mood and bring moment of brightness to their life. Most importantly, if often also encourages others to do the same.