Picture: 123RF/CATHY YEULET
Picture: 123RF/CATHY YEULET

In a global climate of increasing complexity, competition, intolerance and impatience, there has been a steady erosion of public trust in public and private sector organisations and their leaders.

At the same time, there are calls for a more responsible and respectful form of leadership in business and society — for leadership that fosters a sense of inclusion, connection and belonging.

Those of us who live in English-speaking countries or speak English on a daily basis will hear the word “kind” often. It is one of the 500 most frequently used words in the English language. Kind actions are praised and remembered. They have a “boomerang” effect — kindness begets kindness. Such acts cost nothing to give but create significant value.

The idea of kindness having a positive effect on humanity is present throughout religious thinking: it is both a virtue and a practical act, a behavioural as well as a cognitive or emotional response to others. The world’s great philosophers have discussed and written a great deal about kindness. The “golden rule” of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you has been an inspiration through the ages.

Yet research has indicated that kindness is not regularly considered in leadership programmes at business schools, nor in leadership literature. In the words of Mary Farebrother, former director of London Business School’s senior executive programme: “While working in executive education, I didn’t come across an organisational value statement or leadership competency framework that mentioned kindness. Though integrity, respect, collaboration and teamwork were highlighted, kindness was absent.”

We hope, therefore, that our new book, “Kindness in Leadership”, will open the door to a consideration of the strengths that kindness can bring to an organisation and the commitment and trust it can inspire among employees.

We sought input from 200 leaders around the world in public and private sectors in both large and small organisations. They emphasised that kindness in leadership has a universal appeal and is characterised by a variety of kindness-based behaviours. These included adopting a humane approach; fairness and equity; accommodating personal issues; treating others with respect; caring and being responsive; communicating with a personal touch; sharing information in a transparent way; explaining logically; listening intently and valuing the views of others; counselling and mentoring; and being inclusive as a leader.

A garment-finishing company in Bangladesh, for example, showed kindness through the provision of nutritious meals to all employees to ensure their health and wellbeing. At a large retail chain in Turkey, the foremost element in the code of conduct is respect. This has been found to promote harmony and happiness, leading to high-quality consumer services.

Many respondents reported that they avoided impersonal e-mails or office memos for personally sensitive issues, preferring to deal with issues one to one or through small group meetings.

Simple gestures were found to matter a great deal. Vivian Unt, owner-manager of the Vivian Vaushoe salon in Estonia, says: “Most commonly, kindness is expressed through little gestures that are not part of required conduct but are said and done because they make people feel good.”

The leaders also subscribed to beliefs that gave them a rationale for adopting kindness in their leadership style. In many cases these became part of the values and culture of the organisation they led.

These included the following beliefs:

• People are central to the success of any organisation, contributing to success through their imagination, vision, inspiration, problem-solving abilities and personal drive;

• Equity and fairness are important ideals in enhancing employee self-confidence and loyalty; and

• Respect and care stimulate a sense of ownership and commitment.