Leadership Kindness

I decided I wanted to write about leadership kindness, but before I began, I went to several social media channels and asked: Do you want a leader who is kind? How do you feel about kindness as a leadership trait?  

The answers I received were interesting, and on the surface seemed to fall into two camps:

  • Kindness is one of the most important traits of a leader
  • Kindness isn’t nearly as important as some other things – and might be counter-productive

Defining Kindness

As several people commented, it is best to start with a definition of kind. My go to is Merriam-Webster, where the definition related to this conversation is:

: of a sympathetic or helpful nature

  • was helped by a kind neighbor
  • They were very kind to us.

And while most people would agree that it is fine, it is in the synonyms for the word where people begin to diverge. That list includes: amiable, compassionate, considerate, cordial, courteous, and friendly – but also includes – sympathetic, tolerant, tender-hearted, lenient, mild and soft touch.

From that list of words, you can quickly see why not everyone is voting for kindness as an important leadership trait.

Before you read on, answer the question for yourself – do you want a leader who is kind?

The Case for Kindness

As humans, kindness matters. Simply, we would rather be around people who are kind towards us and others than those who aren’t.  In order to lead, people must choose to follow. When we choose to be courteous and friendly relationships can be built, potentially furthering the success of the leader and the team.

The Case Against Kindness

Many others (and maybe you) are saying not so fast.

As a leader we have outcomes to reach – goals to achieve, performance standards to be reached.  For many, the outcomes are what leadership is all about.  People in this camp talk about fairness, honesty and respect – all in service of the goals and outcomes.  Many equate kindness with being too nice or overly sympathetic (look at some of the later synonyms in the list above) and say that leaders need to be firm and clear on expectations, not lenient or tolerant.

Key Lessons

Chances are, whichever camp you place yourself in, you now see a bigger picture. There are several key lessons worthy of all leaders considering:

  • Beware the false dichotomy. The best leaders must recognize they work in a world that in many ways isn’t black and white. To say kindness is good or bad misses the larger point. Seeing the world that way is creating a false dichotomy. Is it possible to hold people to a clear standard and still be considerate and compassionate? And if you do both, will you be more successful?  
  • Recognize differences. Not everyone sees the world the same way. If you have ever taken any sort of behavioral style assessment (think DISC, Myers-Briggs or one hundred others), you will see the point.  Some people want you to respect them, others want you to be kind to them. At the end of the day, people want to know, like, and trust you.  When they do they are far more likely to follow you.
  • Leadership is about outcomes and others. Your job as a leader is to move the team in the direction of some desired outcomes – whether a vision, a strategy or some goals. Yet you can’t do that alone.  Those on your team and in your organization are required to reach those outcomes. As a leader, everything we do must be done in service of both outcomes and others.  That means we can be can have high standards and be considerate. We can be clear and compassionate. We can have clear expectations and be empathetic. 


As we learn these lessons, leading individuals in the direction of the goals, we will find the balance we need, and kindness is part of that balance.


Remarkable Principle:  Remarkable leaders are kind, empathetic and respectful – and still hold people to high and clear expectations.



Looking for more ways to be kind and still hold your team accountable? Here is a link to upcoming learning events. Questions or comments? Drop us a line below or email info@kevineikenberry.com.

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Kevin Eikenberry is a recognized world expert on leadership development and learning and is the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group (http://KevinEikenberry.com). He has spent nearly 30 years helping organizations across North America, and leaders from around the world, on leadership, learning, teams and teamwork, communication and more.
Twice he has been named by Inc.com as one of the top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World and has been included in many other similar lists.

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