Thursday, April 10, 2014

If it’s Kind to be Tough, it’s Tougher to be Kind

I’ve always been an advocate of Tough Love. Lots of leadership books advocate this approach. We admire folks who can carry it off with grace and get the job done, especially when making almost impossibly difficult decisions and forcing people to develop. In retrospect the kindest things leaders did for me was to be tough and insistent upon my change and growth.

I could recount several stories from my own life, both personal and professional and I’m sure you could also. Sometimes it took me years to see the correctness of the other person’s action and appreciate that tough love.

So I’m NOT going to rant against this kind of toughness.

What I want you to consider is an addition; Kindness.

I’m not talking about being wishy-washy, overlooking issues, or avoiding tough conversations. I’m not saying everyone gets a trophy, gold star or free pass.

I’m talking about genuine kindness. You remember what that is...think back to when you were a kid...helping a friend with her math homework when she was struggling...putting a hot water bottle in the new puppy’s bed to comfort his first night away from his mother...writing Princess Elizabeth a sympathy note when her father died...

Kindness often gets lost in our hard-charging world. I was reminded of this recently when I heard a remarkable leader talk about her "leadership secret sauce." One of her 10 rules was Be Kind. The audience of business executives was a little surprised when Marylouise Fitzgibbon announced this one. She has built a reputation in the hospitality industry as a rising star with a track record of drastically improving properties. Now as General Manager of the W Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach, her hotel is steadily becoming a leading representative of the brand. 

Kindness is very different from tough love. Fitzgibbon is talking about getting out of our own way. Think about a time when you’ve had an employee, peer or friend do something truly awful. We humans tend to react with anger in these situations and whether we take the flight or fight route we are almost never kind when dealing with the person. If we decided to confront the person, most of us find it extremely difficult to control body language, words, and tone when the metaphorical smoke is leaking out our ears. If we decide not to confront, the overwhelming urge to gossip and put down the other person usually takes over with just a dollop of sarcasm to keep it spicy.

The alternative kindness path is much harder than either of these reactions. Being kind in these situations is NOT reacting. Being kind means putting ourselves into a very different space; a place of genuine caring for the person who has acted so badly. It’s more than deep breathing or counting to 10. Kindness requires us to get in touch with that part of us that is capable of genuine caring about the other person. Only in this state can we talk with the other person and, more importantly, listen to what he or she has to say with openness, compassion, and engagement.

This is a tough order. It goes against some of our firmly held beliefs and the notion of what a strong leader is and does. When you are open and kind in this way, you can now deliver the tough love message so it can be heard by the other person. You are not holding back on the consequences or necessarily taking any different action than you would have in the situation. Instead you are treating the other person as a person and being rigorously honest with yourself.
You are acting. You are returning the love to tough love.

At the end of the conversation and action you won’t feel the elation of self justification or winning. You will feel a sense of peace because you acted with integrity and allowed the person to keep his or her dignity intact, often accepting the consequences, which is where the real growth we want from tough love comes from.

To learn from Marylouise Fitzgibbon’s full 10 leadership tips watch this: 

What’s an example of when you were kind when you could have been hardhearted in a tough work conversation? Share it as part of our quest for leaders who cast a long shadow.

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I'm beginning work on my new book Washington's Shadow: How Leaders Cast a Long Shadow and Create a Positive Culture. Please share your stories or nominees for leaders you know who have transformed the organizational culture positively. This will be a "how-to" book to help others do the same.

1 comment:

Pat Gill Webber said...

During a very tough divorce a top employee in my business was over reacting to lots of things. When visiting her home she thought I didn't handle myself well at a restaurant with the slowest service in America. As a result she locked me out of her house and I had to drive home---a multi hour trip in the middle of the night. OUCH! But, I decided to be kind and not flip out---and I was flipped out. Now, she is long retired and we are still firm friends. Kindness is so important---it makes us human as well as strong.