Too Nice to Lead

We have heard the phrase “too big to fail” in the context of companies that are so big and so tied to the economy of a country that their failure would have disastrous national consequences. Some of these companies do fail, making the phrase a tongue-in-cheek epithet and also a severe lesson for many on the transient nature of business.

My partner always reminds me that no one or no business is irreplaceable. What gives a person or organization value in the world of business is being able to solve a problem in a way that their competitor cannot. The idea is to do business with people “who believe what you believe” as Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, would say.

So what does niceness have to do with this notion of failure and the transient nature of business? Can someone be “too nice to lead” or is this a construct that should be challenged just as business as usual was challenged by the most recent social entrepreneur and conscious capitalism movements in the last decade?

When I was a child, I used to think about business leaders in much the same way as they are portrayed in the Mary Poppins movie – male bankers who live in fancy concrete buildings, care about ROI and are not too pleased with seeing money spent on “feeding the birds”. But I also had a secret desire to see a business person flying a kite! The key then and now is humanizing business and showing that the people leading the business understand human dreams and challenges and use business to help develop or solve those things their stakeholders care about. Can leaders do this successfully without empathy, without compassion and without “niceness”?

Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has published articles on the link between business and forgiveness as well as business and compassion. Niceness is a positive trait in leaders because it creates a sense of engagement, helps build both personal and corporate brands and fosters loyalty amongst employees, clients and stakeholders. Niceness is a negative trait, on the other hand, if it undermines other values in the workplace such fairness, productivity and value creation; if it stops leaders from breaking down social structures to make the organization work better or encourage innovation.

Niceness therefore is a positive leadership trait when it humanizes the leader, makes him or her memorable but does not compromise what is best for stakeholders and the business. As we move towards customization across various industries it follows that leaders – and the brands they represent – need to be more in touch with their stakeholders and the world around them. If success means creating and maintaining a strong connection with people in and around your business and appealing to the very basic and simple human principles of dignity and of understanding, then “too nice to lead” may just become a tongue-in-cheek epithet of a bygone leader.

– EMC

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