Gentle Leadership


In my recent article Breakthrough Innovation, No More Mr. Nice Guy, I was intrigued by an article in an HBR blog by Simon Rucker asserting that achieving breakthrough innovations requires an aggressive, driven, assertive and even sometimes harsh personality – like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford or Thomas Edison.  This article argued that “nice” doesn’t work.   You have to be tough, unrelenting and visionary.  This made me start thinking more about this question.

Yes, we live in a world where we all value power and all it encompasses. It implies things like strength, forcefulness, decisiveness and boldness.  These are things we always associate these with success.  Most of us would describe these attributes as being desirable in our leaders.  Strong. Fearless. Unwavering.  Isn’t that what we want in our leaders?

This is especially true when we think of leaders in times of stress.  John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Winston Churchill in wartime London or J. Edgar Hoover standing up against ruthless mobsters demonstrated these traits.  These are the heroic figures we admire, write about and elevate in our films.

So maybe Mr. Rucker is right.

But what about the possibility of the opposite leadership mode, one based on GENTLENESS rather than power?   If I described “gentle leadership” as when a person treads lightly, listens carefully, looks tenderly and touches with respect – would you admire such a leader, or see them as a kind of “wuss”?

If I think about it someone who is gentle in the way outlined above, I must consider the possibility that such a person may in fact be just as courageous, strong and driven as any of the figures I mentioned above.  They just demonstrate it differently.   Which takes more strength, reacting angrily to a situation that bothers you, or demonstrating self-control – keeping your mouth closed while you reflect on your best response, then giving it in a calm and measured way?    Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama and Franklin Roosevelt strike me as people who operated more from this model.

When I think about my dad, I can tell you that on occasion he would holler at me (though only when I really deserved it).   However, I remember some occasions when I messed up as a youth, and instead of yelling at me, he would shake his head, and in a very calm voice, tell me how much I had disappointed him.  I can still see him shaking his head, sighing and gazing at me with a hurt look in his eyes.   I can tell you that those episodes stung me far more than any angry outburst he occasionally delivered.   Those gentle moments had far more impact.

Gentle Leadership is not the exercise of power and authority, but rather the exertion of influence over the feelings, thoughts and actions of others.

By this definition, it calls on very special attributes and behaviors.

Attributes of Gentle Leaders

From the article by M.S. Rao (see reference below), I found this list of gentle leadership traits.  (The explanations are mine.)

  • Character (They stand for something noble, that the rest of us view as worthy.  They behave in a consistent, transparent and authentic ways.)
  • Charisma (They evoke a sympathetic understanding, which builds rapport with others almost instantly.  They are externally, not self-focused.)
  • Conscience (They have an inner sense of what is right and wrong, and seem to act in accordance with their own internal moral compass.)
  • Conviction (They are driven by determination and passion.)
  • Courage (This is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to act in spite of it – compelled by one’s convictions).
  • Communication (They can find ways to express themselves in powerful and personal ways that make listeners feel the gentle leader  “gets them” and is speaking directly to their core.)
  • Compassion (They act with an intense sensitivity and empathy toward others along with a strong desire to alleviate the pain, suffering or sorrow they see).
  • Commitment (Their unfailing energy to carry through no matter how steep the hill in front.)
  • Consistency (They act from a core set of values that is predictable by others and breeds trust.)
  • Consideration (They always weigh their words and actions from the vantage point of those around them, offering respect.)
  • Contribution (They have an orientation toward service to others, to make a difference in the world.  They leave deep footprints.)

If you think about the people in your life that had that greatest impact on you, I wonder if you see many of the above listed attributes in them.   I know I do.

In addition to my dad, I also think about my aunt Sylvia, a Roman Catholic nun, who was the embodiment of selflessness, patience and compassion for the benefit of all of us in her life.  She was a gentle persuader, and had the persistence to keep applying her force of goodness to you, even when you weren’t interested.  She could wear you down with the power of her virtuous arguments, appealing to the goodness she knew was inside you . . . no matter how deeply buried.   While I don’t think I ever saw her pound the table or raise her voice, she was one of the strongest people I have ever encountered, in the face of some great and painful personal challenges.   By any definition, I would have to classify her as a great leader even though she didn’t command an army, and had little formal authority over anyone.

Is there a business case to be made for Gentle Leadership?

I looked for some tangible evidence of this, and found a study conducted by Professor Bård Kuvaas and Associate Professor Anders Dysvik at the Norwegian Business School.  Their team surveyed 550 employees in 75 different service stations across the country, asking them about the level of caring interest and attention their managers demonstrated toward the employees.   The findings were that the top quartile of caring managers ran stations that had 38 percent higher profits than the stations with managers in the bottom 25 percent.

So, for those of you who need empirical data this should be at least, an interesting result.

But the biggest argument I can make about Gentle Leadership, is that it enriches both the colleagues we influence and us as leaders.  I acknowledge that not everyone out there is ready to take the pledge, but I hope that you at least consider the possibility that a softer style might serve you and your organization well.

I shared with you a couple of personal examples.  Now it is your turn. Think about that person in your own life who made the largest difference in your evolution as a person.  Who was the individual who believed in you before you did, challenged you to try when you lacked confidence, helped get you up when you stumbled, and who set by their own example a standard of behavior so high you couldn’t imagine matching it?   Was it one of your parents, a sibling or a grandparent perhaps?  Maybe it was a coach, teacher or (dare I say) professor?   And it could even have been one of your bosses.   Whoever it was for you, think about how they impacted your life . . .

Now think about the people you are leading.  Consider those you are influencing in your work, your personal and your home life.   Close your eyes.  Think of them.  See their faces.  Can you picture them?

Now imagine that they were asked the same question as I just asked you.   We asked them to consider the people who made the largest difference in their lives.   Now keep your eyes closed, and imagine they are thinking the same kind of thoughts you just were . . . about YOU!

Who have you influenced today?

Other Resources:

Is America Ready for Gentleness?,  by Julie Redstone

Soft Leadership Skills Make For Hard Figures by the Norwegian Business School

Soft leadership, by Qin Tang

Soft leadership: Make others feel more important,  by M. S. Rao

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1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Personal Leadership

One response to “Gentle Leadership

  1. Tom Petz

    Thanks so much for posting this, Len. I wanted to comment after you posted your last blog about guys like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison (the guys on the list I’ve studied the most), that I absolutely did not believe you had to turn into one of these guys to do great things. In fact, I find very little to admire and emulate about either man, other than perhaps their results (but even there, I know couldn’t live with great results that came at the cost of leading the way they did).

    Maybe saying this makes me a “bad candidate” for leadership to the wider world, but I don’t buy it. I believe that that handling people with compassion and understanding, respecting people’s needs, and treating people better than how you expect to be treated will yield far better “results”. I put results in quotes because I define “results” in the big picture – maybe you don’t make as much money (or maybe you do, but it’s not the most important thing), but people are happier, more valued, and feel a sense of ownership.

    This FORCES a re-framing of priorities, of course, and isn’t likely to please a lot of shareholders, but I can’t help but think that leading gentle and exercising a little more grace\character wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. And, there’s NO DOUBT in my mind that the courage and strength needed to lead gentle exceeds that of the “No More Mr. Nice Guy” style. IT requires that you be in total control of your emotions, that you develop empathy for your peers, and that you take disciplined and considered actions. In our “now” society, it is incredibly difficult to keep everything in check and do things that are good for all in the long-term.

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