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How to succeed in business? Play nice

What does “kindness” mean in workplace terms? As William Baker and Michael O’Malley, the authors of "Leading With Kindness," say, it isn't about being a pushover — it's the mark of a good leader. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

What does “kindness” mean in workplace terms? As William Baker and Michael O’Malley, the authors of “Leading With Kindness,” say, kindness is not synonymous with being a sweetheart or a pushover. Instead, kindness is the key to nurturing and reinforcing connections among people engaged in meaningful, reciprocal and productive working relationships. An excerpt.

This work was born of a need to let others know that, contrary to scintillating news reports of corporate bad behavior, the business world is populated by many fine men and women. Your family, friends, and neighbors have responsible positions in organizations of different shapes and sizes. They are people who deeply care about future generations, the communities in which they live, and the myriad social causes that can raise the standard of living and quality of life in America. They are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers who are earth-bound Joes and Janes with the same concerns and wishes as anyone else: to live well and to make a difference.

The leaders we have in mind don’t seek out the spotlight or advertise their good deeds. They don’t bask in virtuousness or revel in their achievements. They don’t entertain themselves with their wealth or use their rank to distance themselves from the rest of humanity. They muddle through life much like the rest of us, mostly unnoticed except by those around them who are keenly aware that they are in the presence of someone special.

These inconspicuous leaders weren’t always the norm. Once upon a time, but not too far away or long ago, many leaders had the tact of bulldozers and dwelled in exclusionary executive nests that were sealed more tightly than mermaids’ purses. They believed they had both the power and the right to push people around. As recently as the 1980s, Robert Nuslott, the CEO of the Chicago-based manufacturer FMC, was quoted as saying: “Leadership is demonstrated when the ability to inflict pain is confirmed.”

Lest we think of two decades as bygone years, there have been plenty of examples in the intermediate years between then and now of leaders who run roughshod over we puny mortals — and to whom many observers bestowed much adulation: think Chainsaw Al and others of his ilk.

That old-style flagellation doesn’t work any more — not that it ever was a formidable contender for enlightened management. But more employees were willing to tolerate the pain as part of a bargain they struck with the Devil. In exchange for high wages, lucrative benefits, and job security, employees were willing to endure a sizable allotment of disparagement while hoping for better in their spare time. As the economy and workforce changed, however, that tacit agreement rapidly unwound.

The emergence of new economic powerhouses and competitors around the globe has eaten away at privileged American monopolies in certain industrial sectors, with a subsequent erosion of worker pay and benefits and the draconian loss of jobs. Simultaneously, the knowledge workers who Peter Drucker predicted would appear on the scene, did. Unlike the traditional employer-employee association of yore, these employees carried the tools of their trades in their heads. Less dependent on specific companies for their material nourishment, they operated more like a Silicon Valley caliphate: nomadic technologists who roamed from company to company in search of a better deal and more exciting work. What’s more, there wasn’t a limitless supply of these people, and there were important individual differences — particular individuals were more sought after than others. More and more, companies found themselves dependent on a scarce, variable pool of human resources.

There is no firm contract with knowledge workers. They come and they go. Now, however, when too many go, all eyes turn toward the manager who couldn’t keep them — who allowed rare talent to walk out the door and incurred the expense of hiring replacements. When the talent flees in droves, now, more often than not, bad management is blamed. We can assure you that the variety of management responsible for mass employee defections isn’t adhering to the kindly leadership we will be discussing throughout this book.

The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, has it right when he says that the way to manage in today’s environment is to treat workers as volunteers — you can’t just tell them what to do. When the right people are deployed in the right ways, a lot of directives aren’t necessary. In the case of Wikipedia, managing volunteers was literally true, but Wales’s comments were intended to apply more broadly to the modern company.

It is a wholesome outlook. We ­ appreciate volunteers and understand that they are there with you by choice. The idea of employee-as-volunteer forces leaders to give much greater thought to what employees hope to derive from the ­ employee-employer relationship and what elements of the job and work environment will keep them engaged. Suddenly, employees matter; and the way leaders interact with them matters, too. Some companies, such as Best Buy, are experimenting with the extreme freedom advocated by organizational commentators like Wales, with positive ­ effects. By redefining work as something people do versus where they are, how long they work, or the number of activities in which they are engaged, Best Buy has been changing its culture to one that emphasizes productivity regardless of when or where the work is undertaken — to the point at which even meetings are optional. That is, the company hopes to replace busyness with effectiveness. Early ­results are promising: Productivity is up 35 percent where the program has been implemented, and turnover is down more than 50 percent (American Morning, CNN, January 14, 2008).

This book is our opportunity to discuss leadership as it always ought to have been practiced, a form of leadership that assumes more importance than ever in a volatile business climate in which a premium is placed on those who can lead well. We entered this project with ideas about what constitutes superior leadership based on a combined sixty-plus years in business and academia: enough time and experience to formulate an opinion. But from there we proceeded reflexively. That is, we put our ideas to the test, against both research results from the management literature and the quality leaders with whom we spoke about our leadership ideas.

In some cases, we were forced to rethink and retest a position. Thus, although we started this book with a working structure, our concepts of kind leadership evolved as new evidence became available. We conscientiously tried to avoid Procrustean temptations to force-fit the extant facts into our preconceptions. Similarly, we did not blindly accept information we gathered as true unless it was corroborated by other findings or withstood the scrutiny of common sense.

The leaders we spoke with had varied backgrounds and business trajectories. Some started and built their own companies, and some took more established routes through the corporate hierarchy. Collectively, they had experience in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. They represented different industries, generations, and geographies. We learned immensely from each (brief biographies of each of our interviewees are located in the appendix).

Whereas each man and woman had the requisite values, traits, and abilities to qualify as a kind leader, during our discussions with them each emphasized slightly different aspects of leadership. Throughout the book we will selectively highlight their leadership philosophies and place them within the broader context of what it means to lead with kindness.

A recent conversation during a visit to a financial institution summed up the type of leaders we chose as our subjects. As conversation moved to the topic of this book, the president of the company asked us who we had spoken to. Given where we were, we started with leaders of financial companies: “Tom Renyi ...” The president stopped us before we even made it to the second name. “Tom Renyi! He is the most honorable man in banking.”

We don’t use the word much elsewhere in this book, so now would be an opportune time to say that honorable gives a good description of those who contributed their ideas to this book. Honorable, because the sum total of who they are and what they achieved is worthy of esteem and respect. However, not one of these leaders would claim that he scaled organizational heights alone, or developed into the person he is without some assistance — sometimes hefty pushes — along the way. Thus, en route to our discussion of kindness, these people gave us what we refer to as the first rule of success. The rule needs to be satisfied before you can meaningfully move on to the many other principles of success, offered in sets of three, five, seven, or ten in the abundant self-help literature. The first rule of success is to find someone who can help you to succeed. No one achieves her life’s ambitions without the steady, guiding hands of others.

In a way, this book begins at the end. In the appendix, we provide a description of leaders who already have benefited from the selfless giving of others and who are now in the process of giving back. They have been shaped by mentors who had nothing more to gain than to watch someone in whom they saw great potential develop and flourish.

Despite the well-documented, positive influences of mentors on careers, not everyone is blessed with a mentor or adept at finding one. The first and most powerful mentors in most people’s lives — parents — aren’t equally gifted, for an assortment of reasons. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, several leaders we interviewed mentioned that their parents had the most profound effects on their worldviews and professional successes, instilling values, such as tenacity, and skills, such as peacemaking (conflict resolution), that are useful anywhere, any time.

Second, although there are many willing and able potential mentors, it takes a keen and accepting eye to locate them and take advantage of what they have to offer. Mentors walk among us ghost-like, and only certain people are able to see them. The kind leaders we discuss throughout this book are open to experience and persistently look for ways to improve, and, consequently, are able to notice and receive what others are willing to give. They don’t have the counterproductive sensibilities that prevent many people from accepting the help of others, or that eventually repulse would-be mentors. Such behaviors, which typically incorporate some form of perceived inadequacy or insecurity, include:

  • Appearing weak or intellectually fallible
  • Interpreting feedback as disapproval or rejection
  • Unwilling to be dependent upon or beholden to ­ another

These barriers to the well-meaning inputs of others not only block learning; they nullify other desirable aspects of mentoring, such as ready access to the mentor’s network of associates. The kind leaders we have met through the years avoid such traps that keep them from honing their leadership abilities.

Third, as a part of our interviews, we asked leaders if they ever had a bad boss. “Oh, of course,” was the unanimous reply. Most telling, however, was that this confession didn’t contain the slightest hint of animosity. Yes, they had endured bad bosses — the arrogant, ill-tempered sort. Yet, remarkably, these leaders learned from them: Thus, whereas it would be a far stretch to describe inadequate managers as exemplary mentors, it would be fair to say that for discriminating people, they served as an occasional model. Our discerning leaders were able to see in these highly compromised people a flicker of respectability. Few individuals are all good or all bad, and while it is easier to notice the goodness in some versus others, those who become great leaders are able to accept a situation as it is and make the best of it, learning what they can, perhaps from a poor leader’s analytical genius, penchant for administration, or political wherewithal. If there is anything positive there, a person who is passionate about leading well will find it.

In addition, there always is something to be learned from the dark side. In a BusinessWeek article, Keith McFarland referred to negative lessons as “anti-mentoring.” In the article, he recalled asking his poor excuse for a boss — the vice president — for a transfer; euphemistically implied in this discussion was that his boss was the reason behind the request. The vice president agreed, on condition that the VP would relay this news to his superior. There was a lot lost in translation. The vice president conveyed that the reason for the unsuspecting employee’s request was that the company president was too meddlesome and intrusive in everyday affairs.

From this experience, McFarland learned that people are reliable and consistent. Those who can’t be trusted ... can’t be trusted. He mistakenly believed that the vice president would morph from a self-interested, overcontrolling jerk into a congenial and understanding boss. No way. Later he learned another anti-mentoring lesson: you spend too much time at work to spend it with people you don’t like or trust. Good leaders are able to learn from both their own and others’ mistakes — preferably the latter.

Fourth, as students of history and literature, good leaders adopt both real and fictional heroes and heroines as mentors. Indeed, many of the leaders we spoke to mentioned people like Lord Nelson, ­ Elizabeth I, and Winston Churchill as individuals from whom they derived wisdom and strength and noted memorable books ranging from Atlas Shrugged to Henry IV as doorways into human nature — and sources of great pleasure. Thus, those who are interested in the craft of leadership cast a wide net throughout history and art, finding role models who inspire. In contrast, those who are only interested in the here and now, who cling only to given ideas and approaches of proven usefulness, will fail to recognize enduring lessons in the historical and literary records.

The remainder of this book focuses on good people who have made business their primary avocation: people who have treated managerial excellence itself as serious business, who have felt the momentousness of leading and worked hard and tirelessly to make organizations successful and work life more satisfying. In subsequent chapters, we describe a category of leader that, in sustaining the aggregate will of groups to continuously move forward, has largely mastered one of the most ancient arts.

Excerpted from “Leading with Kindness: How Good People Consistently Get Superior Results” by William F. Baker and Michael O’Malley. Copyright © 2008 William F. Baker and Michael O’Malley. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. For more from this book, click here.