Board Effectiveness and Governance

Why kindness matters in leadership

To use those well-known words of Jane Austen, ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged’ that good and effective leadership matters, it matters to the ability of organisations to recruit, retain and motivate good staff, to the results an organisation can achieve and to its future health and success.

For more than a decade the leadership literature has significantly challenged traditional concepts of leadership strengths and traits – the shift towards valuing emotional intelligence and the capacity of leaders to create safe, enabling and engaging cultures that allow for continuous improvement is wide spread across industries and sectors.

 The sector that I have spent most of my career working within is health, education and care. The work of Michael West on compassionate leadership now has significant traction and currency across the NHS, and many leadership and OD teams are designing their development programmes around these principles. The Civility Saves Lives campaign has demonstrated the correlation between civil work environments and the reduction of errors and stress with consequent improvement in outcomes. This campaign, together with other patient safety programmes in healthcare and safety initiatives in other industries, has proven the link between the results that teams can deliver and the extent to which team members feel safe and supported by one another and are confident to speak up when they have concerns or have identified errors or risks. If your lockdown viewing has included the film ‘Sully’ about the pilot who lands a US Airways flight on the Hudson river, you will know that it illustrates this point very powerfully.

The covid-19 context has cast a spotlight on what organisations are doing on staff health and wellbeing and not surprisingly the theme of resilience has been centre stage. There remain vastly different perspectives about what resilience is and isn’t. In my view it is regrettable that resilience is still viewed by some as ‘endurance’ and thus leaders who are considered resilient are those with most strength, staying power and ability to cope with the most difficult challenges the organisation may face. Thus, resilience is seen as an individual sport rather than a team game. The trauma response working group, providing expert advice on trauma and evidence informed responses to covid, helps to provide a different perspective. Resilience is something that can develop between members of teams in the way in which they relate to one another and support each other, rather than just within us as individuals. We can all help to build resilience not only for ourselves but for our colleagues and across our teams and the wider organisation. This requires leaders to behave, respond and interact with others based on the principles of emotional intelligence, compassionate leaderships and with civility and respect as a given.

Of all the things I have heard and read this Mental Health Awareness Week the Latimer Talk led by Tia Castagno on wellness in business stimulated my thinking the most. She described the way in which stress, fear, anger, and frustration impact brain function and inhibit creativity, problem solving and performance. Only environments, therefore, where leaders collaborate with staff to co-create a working climate that minimises anxiety, stress and fear and builds confidence, courage and creativity will provide the foundation for organisational success.

Given the increasingly demanding and competitive selection processes for senior roles, and the way in which more progressive thinking about effective leadership styles is now mainstream, it is puzzling to say the least that there remains a ‘say-do’ gap between what organisations espouse as their leadership values and the behaviour that senior leaders actually exhibit. This is even more surprising perhaps in sectors where recruitment, retention, staff sickness and burnout would be the key challenges identified in any people and OD strategy. What makes the translation of what we know to be in the best interests of an organisation and its staff into the behavioural ‘norm’ of senior executives and leaders so difficult? Here are a few thoughts on four domains in which further change is needed.

Personal drivers

Perhaps the biggest barrier to overcome lies in the reality of what really drives senior leaders in organisations. It can still too often be the case that individuals are driven by ego, status, the need for control or recognition, the need to be right and by an instinct to compete with, rather than collaborate with, colleagues. Often the route to senior leadership positions has involved experience of either personal or workplace distress and damaging experiences of working under the leadership of others. This can occur without the individual recognising the negative impact these experiences may have had on their own psychological health and their leadership capacity, beliefs, and behaviours. As the Mental Health Foundation is quick to point out, kindness comes from being able to keep others in mind. An individual whose motivation to lead is borne out of their own unresolved or unmet needs will find it harder to consider the needs of others and reflect on the impact they have on the climate that they are pivotal to creating within their organisation.

Selection, appraisal, and development

While selection processes for senior leaders and executives are becoming more sophisticated over time, assessment of experience and professional/technical expertise still outweighs the emphasis on leadership competency, style, and capacity for emotionally intelligent leadership. Professional development is seen as a route to the top, rather than the most important investment of time for those at the top. In my 28 year career, it has been rare to see a senior executive in receipt of leadership coaching whereby direct reports are invited to give feedback about their experience of being led by that individual as a tool in the coaching process. It is even more rare for there to be a mature level of psychological safety between senior leaders and their direct reports that such feedback is given with honesty and confidence.

Board Assurance

Board assurance frameworks, corporate reporting and scorecards and the attention of the Board and Executive Team need to be focused as much on people and culture as it is on performance and finance. In organisations where mission is delivered through people and partnerships, getting people and culture right will enable service and financial performance.  Hard metrics and quantitative measures need to be balanced with qualitative and triangulated intelligence to ensure the board has a 360-degree understanding of the organisation and the experience of the staff working within it.

Taking action

In conclusion, kindness in leadership is not a benign or soft quality aimed to facilitate an undemanding or ‘easy’ working environment for staff. Rather it is an essential part of effective leadership whereby a leader has sufficient emotional maturity and sophistication to keep the needs of others in mind. This means they are able to create a psychologically informed environment that is capable of getting the very best out of the workforce, and allows people to perform at their best in the interests of organisational results and outcomes.

Organisations that are genuinely committed to effective leadership will be proactive in:

  • Appointing leaders who have demonstrated their potential for emotional intelligence as well as professional and technical expertise and experience
  • Building psychological safety into relationships between team members and between senior leaders and those staff who report to them
  • Allowing coaching to be informed by 360 feedback that is given with honesty and integrity
  • Adopting the mindset that resilience is ‘between us not just within us’
  • Ensuring the Board and Executive Team focus on the people to ensure the ‘pounds and performance’ targets are met.
  • Acting when there is a ‘say-do’ gap between organisational values and behaviour

William Wordsworth said that ‘the best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness’. As leaders, our capacity for kindness determines whether we can get the best out of our staff.  Ultimately, this is what effective leadership is about. It is the best portion of a good leader’s life and is why kindness in leadership matters.   

Acknowledgements and References

Daniel Goleman, Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence, 2011
Michael West
Civility Saves Lives Campaign
NHS England, Human Factors in Healthcare, 2013
Latimer Talks: Tia Castagno Wellness in Business May 2020
Covid Trauma Response Working Group
Perlo J, Balik B, Swensen S, Kabcenell A, Landsman J, Feeley D., IHI Framework for Improving Joy in Work, 2017

Special thanks are owed to the Health Psychology and OD Teams of Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust who have inspired my work and thinking across the last 8 weeks and with whom it has been a privilege to collaborate. Thanks are also due to Liam Black who has been my professional mentor for the last 6 months.

Relevant articles

Insights and knowledge

Engagement Should Be Part Of The ‘New Normal’

30 Jul, Paul England
Insights and knowledge

Complexity isn’t complicated

22 Jul, Paul England

Book a free consultancy call