We interrupt your holiday shopping with a short message about kindness, humility, and an intellectual stocking stuffer that any aspiring leader in your life is sure to enjoy…
The time time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a time when we tend to be on our best behavior with family, our friends, even our colleagues at work. If only we could be so kind the rest of the year!
Well, as it turns out, there’s pretty good case for the power of kindness in life and in business, and I made that case in a new essay for Harvard Business Review. I was inspired to write my piece by a column in the Washington Post, which argued that just as bad behavior tends to spread, so too does good behavior. Kindness, it turns out, is contagious.
The Post column highlighted the work of Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, who documents what he calls “positive conformity.” In his research, “participants who believed others were more generous became more generous themselves.” This suggests that “kindness is contagious, and that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.”
I’ve seen kindness at work in countless business settings, most instructively the transformation of customer service at Mercedes-Benz USA, which I explore in my HBR piece. For leaders, the way to unleash kindness in your organization is to treat it like a contagion, and to create the conditions under which everybody catches it.
A close cousin of kindness is humility, another leadership trait that is in short supply most of the time, but tends to make a cameo appearance during the holidays. (So too does stress-eating, but that’s a topic for a different newsletter.) In fact, a recent management column in the Wall Street Journalappeared under the appealing headline, “The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses.” The article reported that humble leaders “inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and high performance in their teams.”
All of which raises an obvious question: If humility is so important, why are so many leaders today, especially our most famous leaders, so arrogant? Or, to flip the question around: In the face of so much evidence that humble leaders do, in fact, outperform arrogant leaders, why is it so hard for leaders at every level to check their egos at the office door?
I explored those and other questions in another essay for HBR. Spoiler alert: It turns out it’s hard for leaders to be humble, especially when they believe that humility is the opposite of ambition. In fact, humility in the service of ambition is the most effective and sustainable mindset for leaders who aspire to do big things in a world filled with huge unknowns.
Now for that stocking stuffer…Over the last year or so, I’ve immersed myself in the insights and wisdom of John W. Gardner, the late great Stanford professor and civic reformer, who ranks, in my estimation, with Peter Drucker as the most profound management thinker of our time. In his career, Gardner gave many speeches and wrote many books, any of which are worth reading. But if you’re looking for a stocking stuffer for that aspiring leader in your life, give him or her the paperback edition of Self-Renewal, Gardner’s classic book first published in 1963, 55 years ago now.
I reread Self-Renewal a while back, and it stunned me with its relevance, even urgency, to our current situation. These are anxious, difficult, demoralizing times, especially for those of us who expect decency and morality from our leaders. But “if people are apathetic, defeated in spirit, or unable to imagine a future worth striving for,” Gardner cautioned, “the game is lost.”
The antidote to apathy, Gardner continued, is a sense of zest, confidence—high morale in trying times. “Life is tumultuous,” he explains, “an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory. We need a hard-bitten morale that enables us to face these truths and still strive with every ounce of our energy to prevail.” You can learn more about, and buy, Self-Renewal here.
As always, thanks for your interest in and support of my work. Have a wonderful holiday and a Happy New Year!