Leading with Kindness
By William Baker, PhD
In business, we hate bullies but we also lionize them. Just think of Donald Trump's The Apprentice, which has grown into an international franchise. Nobody wants to work for so-called "bully bosses," but a lot of us secretly believe they are the most effective managers.
Yet the latest research in management and even in biology shows that bullies fail as leaders in the long run, and, contrary to popular belief, nice guys finish first. Back when I was getting my PhD in the 1960s, industrial psychology was still evolving away from grim ideas like Skinner's box, which sought to apply rat-inthe- maze-style behaviorism to the workplace.
It was the dawn of Gestalt, which argued that people and organizations were best viewed as more than the sum of their parts. These new theories confirmed my intuition, and later my experiences as a manager in the media business, where I was responsible for motivating creative people to produce radio and television shows. As president of Westinghouse Television (now CBS), I was in charge of several thousand employees. There, and later as president of the nation's premiere PBS station, I learned how to rally people around principles, not just profits. At every turn in my long career, I found that being open, kind and respectful with the people who worked for me never failed to be the silver bullet of successful management, even in the toughest situations.
Especially in the toughest situations. In 2008, I partnered with Michael O'Malley, PhD (WRC '78; GRS '78, psychology), a business book author, former editor at Yale University Press and current business-and human resources consultant. We wrote Leading with Kindness, which showed through research and high-profile, real-world examples that kind leadership was most effective.
The book also was adapted into a PBS show of the same name, which featured interviews with managers at Google, Pitney Bowes and the Juilliard School, among others. It is tough to encapsulate kind leadership, but here is a paragraph from the book that comes close: "The purpose isn't to protect or shelter employees from hard decisions, troublesome issues or setbacks but to inspire trial, perseverance and personal growth.
Kind leaders treat others like adults, and not as charity cases or dependents. And while there are ample pockets of levity and fun, the real mission of a true leader is to build a whole, fully functioning person who takes responsibility for his or her actions and values the welfare of the entire group. Kind leadership, then, isn't for the faint hearted who shun conflict or bury bad news in order to preserve a swell of fellow feeling. It isn't for those who mistake camaraderie for productive community action. Kindness makes others stronger; paternalism weakens. Kindness builds a reservoir of resilience and self-confidence, enabling people to think big and to believe in what they are capable of accomplishing."
After Leading with Kindness came out, it seemed like our ideas were on the verge of getting into the drinking water. Then the global economy melted down, and people got scared. Some managers panicked and grew harsher, and employees, it seems, were willing to take the abuse just to keep their jobs.
But things are changing. Kind management is popping up everywhere, from the press (see "Nice Guys Finish First," by David Brooks, The New York Times) to business schools (see "Teamwork Can Outdo Brilliance," by Bill Taylor, Harvard Business Review). The latest philosophical thinking (see The Honor Code, by Princeton philosopher Kwami Appiah) and the latest in neuroscience (see Born to be Good, by Dacher Keltner) confirm the core principles of kind leadership.
Before glassdoor.com comes out with another list of the meanest bosses (they also do one for the nicest), it is time for managers everywhere to realize that, to get America moving in the 21st century economy, we need to let go of ideas that don't work anymore. Putting open, honest and kind relationships on top of the agenda for America's work force is a great start.
William Baker, Phd (ADL '66; GRS '68, '72, communication sciences) is president emeritus of WNET, PBS New York Flagship stations, distinguished professor of media and entertainment at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, and university professor at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University in New York.