Kindness is not Weakness

Bob & Hans at Tahoe, Kindness in Leadership Metaphor

I came across a fairly recent HBR article that I found particularly interesting and of course, timely, given everything that leaders have had to been going through over the last year. Leading during a time of so much personal stress and ambiguity has brought up intense emotions we’re all working through. The HBR article centered around the idea that leadership is an act of kindness. It reminded me of a saying that I frequently use with my clients in the spirit of courageous leadership — “kindness is not weakness.”  

Kindness & Employee Morale

The HBR authors make the case that kindness is a way to improve employee morale; it helps employees get through very difficult times. It doesn’t only affect business leaders but heads of state. The Prime Minister of New Zealand discussed her frustration, that as a woman, “if I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or I maybe somehow if I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak.”  Of course, this can hold equally true for men as well. 

According to several employee surveys, less than half of employees feel their employer cares about their well-being. And 42% said their mental health had declined since the Covid-19 outbreak. If there was a time when kindness is a critical leadership skill, now is that time. 

Choosing Kindness

Through my martial arts journey over the last 20 years, I’ve learned that kindness is definitely not a sign of weakness.  

Many of the kindest I’ve ever met are incredibly skilled martial artists, the type of people that you would genuinely never want to fight. They seem to be able to remain calm, compassionate, humble, and even have a good sense of humor, no matter the circumstance. Each of them takes great care of their training partners, although at any time, they could inflict great pain or cause them serious injury. 

The picture in this post is of me and my Aikido Sensei who is a 7th degree blackbelt. I’ve been a student of his for close to 20 years. He is one of the kindest and empathetic people I’ve ever met.  Looking at this picture, you can see I’m following his gaze and outstretched hand as if he is showing me the way. What precedes this picture, is my strike towards his head. My teacher has moved out of the way and is now looking in the direction of my strike as if to try and see what I’m seeing. What is the point of my aggression? 

If any of you have done martial arts, particularly Aikido, you’ll know that in the next frame he is about to turn back the other direction and respond to my aggression.  

This is where he has a choice to be kind or perhaps, less kind. For martial artists, you’ll recognize that he has actually taken my balance at this point, and he can choose a variety of techniques in response. He can just drop me to the ground, he can throw me backward in a way that will allow me to take a fairly easy and soft roll across the mat, he can break my back, or he can choke me out completely. It is his choice regarding how kind the response will be. 

Your Team As Training Partners

Obviously, in training, we don’t take the harshest response. If you do that, you eventually run out of training partners. Choosing too much aggression to show you are strong, eventually leads to longer-term problems – on that mat and of course at work. 

I like to think at times that the people we work with, are also our training partners. Some are more aggressive than others, but we are all in it together. In martial arts, we train with intensity so that we are prepared to defend ourselves or our loved ones, outside of the dojo. At work, you need to train hard to win in the market. The goal is not to be so aggressive and show no mercy with your team or your co-workers, taking them down one by one. The overuse of “healthy debate” or “radical candor” comes at a price. You might eventually have no team to lead. And if you have no team to lead, you can’t possibly be a leader. 

Take the courageous choice and show kindness. There is no weakness in that move. 

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