Kindness as Skillful Leadership Action

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Really? Kindness as skillful action for leaders,[1] as a way of relating to colleagues, customers, or suppliers? Yes, I believe kindness is among the most powerful and important modes of skillful action that leaders or collaborators can cultivate in service of their mission and goals. Why? Because in the final analysis most fruitful relationships must operate on a basis of trust and good will.

Most relationships, in this case, refers to those that involve a voluntary basis of engagement, affiliation, and commerce. Such relationships are generally formed for a purpose with the understanding that they will endure and yield mutual benefit. They are relationships that we invest in, rely upon, and care for because they become a means of securing mutual vital interests.

Would you willingly choose to do business with people who do not care about you, your organization, or the well-being of both? Not unless you had to because you had no choice. Even then you would replace it as soon as you could with another relationship you could bank on in good times or bad, one in which your mutual interests give you reason to truly care about one another.

Practical Kindness as Beneficence

Beneficence is the act of doing good for others individually and in the form of public goods. It’s the active expression of kindness. Tempted to dismiss this as a frivolous or sentimental concern? You need only recall that the author of capitalism, Adam Smith, believed that an economy premised upon greed and self-interest alone, blind to its effects on the public welfare, was ill-conceived. 

Why? Because modern Western societies and nations are peoples whose voluntary union is based upon liberal democratic principles. They include the rule of law, and the natural rights of all persons to freedom and to be treated with dignity. Smith, like other Enlightenment thinkers,[2] believed that human beings are moved by self-interest, but also by benevolent motives and fellow-feeling. 

Although the latter must be cultivated (just as our intellect must be), they are no less fundamental to our nature. It is the mark of civilization to cultivate our highest potentials in morality and commerce.

So, unless we believe that commerce and virtue are incompatible, and that people prefer to operate like lone wolves, exploiting one another, it stands to reason that kindness and beneficence are of practical value. They are practical in two senses of the word: First, they promote cooperative acts of mutual good faith that we can bank on. Second, as cultivated practices, they sustain these acts over time.

An Example of How Skillful Kindness Works

It can be difficult to invoke kindness when we are operating under stress and strain, or when we’ve just been treated poorly by a frustrated colleague or customer. The state of mutual positive regard and the associated actions that express respect and build trust are temporarily lost. We can naturally contract, put up our guard, and feel threatened, angry, resentful.

At such times, oh, what a difference a breath can make. We use it to collect ourselves. A moment, ever so brief, in which reactions are seen and disarmed. Perhaps not immediately, but soon reactive emotion is replaced with consciousness of a strained state of relationship. It’s a rupture in our relationship, a barrier to good action, also a moment calling for care and repair.

It’s a colleague with whom we share interdependent responsibilities and accountabilities to serve our client who is under great financial pressure. And the coordination between our two departments has not been working well. Our processes have changed, staff too. Account management is taking heat and has been passing it along to engineering. Deadlines for software fixes have come and gone.

The account management team meets to discuss another intervention. Soon they’re “loaded for bear” – “We’re going to get this straight once and for all!” But their director takes a deep, audible breath, arms stretched open to accommodate an even bigger second breath. Yes, it was a cue. They recognized it, even if they resented it in the moment. She was saying, “Let’s pause.”

Conversation then went to, “What are we feeling? Our client? Our colleagues in engineering?” Feelings of worry, fear, frustration, and desperation fueled other feelings like anger, hostility, and resentment. “So, this is what’s motivating us all at this time. No wonder, we’re at each other’s throats. But, how is this cycle helping or hindering our common interest in solving the problem?”

We must first hear our own feelings before we can sincerely empathize with the feelings of others. We are all just trying to do our job. We’re all under pressure. The answer is to muster enough kindness for all, starting with ourselves and our colleagues in engineering: “Now, let’s try again.” Only then, are we able to restore the trust and goodwill needed to jointly solve the customer’s problems.

Kindness is about acting from a consciousness of our common humanity. It’s about finding our heart, listening to what it tells us, and then acting toward others with heartfelt consideration. It’s practical wisdom – “genius in its working clothes” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).


[1] This is the third article in a series on Skillful Action. The first addressed skillful thought and the second concerned skillful speech. They all operate in a complementary manner to promote engagement within and between units in a firm, and between the firm and its customers or clients. Of course, cultivating these skills requires some time and effort. This competence is based upon mindful practices of leadership.

[2] These are the thinkers who formulated the philosophy – moral, political, legal, and economic – that inspired our founding fathers as they wrote our Constitution and articulated its basic principles.