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Is kindness as important as toughness in leadership?

4 min read


I once interviewed for a position where the hiring manager interrogated me mercilessly. The immediate impression I had of him as a leader was not favorable. My concern was that he would be overly demanding to his staff and possibly a micro-manager. I thought he’d be very tough (in an unfavorable way) to work for.

Luckily, I spoke with some of his direct reports to find out more about him after the interview. Several stories from those who reported to him illustrated his kindness; there wasn’t evidence that he would be excessively tough to work for.

I was offered the position, and accepted. It required me to work closely with my new manager on a particular high-profile committee in the company that included top executives. I discovered that this manager was one of the best I’d ever had in terms of balancing his intervention in the work I did as I was learning with trusting that I was capable of doing what was required to have our business area seen by the executives as professional and effective. My new manager was both tough and kind.

This manager’s criticism was delivered with care and his praise and recognition was just frequent enough to give me the confidence to know that he believed in me. In turn, I had no problem giving him feedback or suggesting new ways to operate; he wanted it and received it with grace. Finally, our team (those who reported to him) forged bonds with each other that I found to be rare. We helped each other out when there was a crunch, and we delivered feedback without rancor. We were both tough and kind to each other, and we accomplished a lot.

What the data are showing

More and more data is showing that managers who focus on results while still showing kindness is what the world needs now:

  • Projecting warmth before establishing competence in a new position is more effective than beginning with toughness.
  •  When leaders are fair to their team, the team reflects fairness to each other and to customers.
  •  Employees would rather be happy than have more pay.
  •  A focus on results and social skills are necessary to be seen as a great leader.

How many leaders are both results- and people-focused?

Management Research Group has mined the data of 60,763 leaders who completed the LEA360 (a multi-rater feedback tool) to answer the question: Can leaders be both caring and focused on achievement?. Within that sample, they found only .77% (that’s not a typo; the number is less than 1%!) of leaders who were in the top third of the population studied had a balanced focus on both achievement and caring.

Part of the reason for this strikingly low percentage is that the brain often seems incapable of focusing on results and people simultaneously. However, we know that the brain is “plastic,” with the ability to change, so with intention and practice, it’s possible to change how you react and lead over time to be more balanced.

Even if being overly tough or overly caring is your ingrained response mode, I believe you can become more balanced. It takes practice, focus and dedication. It’s hard. But your balance in these areas can help your organization to get better results.

The bottom line is that we need toughness (results-orientation) and kindness (caring for others) in our leaders. What if we started rewarding leaders for knowing how to balance these traits? Where do you stand on the continuum between results and caring? What impact would achieving balance have on your organization?

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.

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