Why leaders need to display more kindness

With merely going back to normal not an option after the pandemic, managers must learn to lead in a more compassionate way, argues Lili Powell

In recent memory, the world has seen profound changes in almost every facet of business and society, and the change is ongoing. Though it’s taken centre stage — with good reason — the pandemic isn’t the only urgent issue facing humanity. In a torrent of contemporary challenges, Covid-19 accelerated some changes that were inevitable, brought the need for others into stark focus and served as a backdrop for the constant flux of an evolving world. 

The business community has a starring role to play in every major issue of our time, and the opportunities and risks in each are significant. Taking an active role in shaping the future is more important than ever as leaders navigate and co-create the ‘next normal’. Whether we will have the ‘roaring twenties’ or the ‘groaning twenties’ remains to be seen, but strong leadership will be essential as companies learn from the past, confront urgent issues head on and plan for the future.

Since March 2020 when the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, a series of cascading crises in global health, employment, social justice and political divisions has laid bare for many managers and leaders just how porous the lines between life and work really are. Each wave compounded the next, leaving many workers caught in cycles of uncertainty, anxiety and stress. On a very large scale, this has been a moment of truth for seeing what’s real and choosing to respond with ‘business as usual’ or with leadership kindness. For many leaders I’ve listened to, the relatively sudden impact of the lockdown brought to the fore their awareness of our common humanity.

A challenge in any crisis is managing one’s own stress response and reactivity in order to see clearly and choose wisely.  Managing oneself with mindfulness leads to leading mindfully when one employs similar skills to influence the collective attention of a team and organisation so that they, in turn, can make wise choices. Leading mindfully is very much about showing up with an optimal balance of grit and grace, in which “grit” represents the focus and determination that mindful practices foster, and “grace” represents the calm and kindness that compassion practices foster.

Stereotypically, business leaders have tended to privilege grit over grace. This even shows up in common language used in business that suggests that it’s about hard numbers and mental toughness, while the human elements are soft and touchy-feely. In light of recent crises, leaders I’m working with recognise they need to operate in a more holistic way. Yet this does not necessarily come naturally to them. And performance metrics and rewards systems in business often valorise toughness over humanity. So, the burning question is whether the pull toward leadership kindness will be maintained even after the Covid-19 crisis abates — or whether leaders will shift back to business as usual.

The context for leadership has fundamentally shifted and a ‘going back to normal’ mindset would be a mistake. Instead, there is an opportunity for defining a ‘next normal’ during which leaders have a chance to see the shifts that have occurred and intentionally craft a new blend of grit and grace in their own leadership skills repertoire, one that fits the new and evolving circumstances. 

My work has concentrated on building and applying skills of mindfulness, compassion and leadership communication, particularly during high-stakes presentations and interactions, such as crucial conversations. A leader can make micro-moves in the moment to do the inner work and the outer work of leading mindfully. For example, training in mindfulness and compassion outside of critical moments can help build the experiential inner work muscles to notice, shift and respond more mindfully and compassionately in the moment. These inner moves build capacity to then make skilful outer moves, such as naming an elephant in the room, reframing the way to see it, and inviting another person to respond in a new way. With practice over time, such moves can become second nature and consequently lead to changes in levels of trust and psychological safety in a team.

Compassion is a skill, one that individuals can cultivate in themselves, and it can be baked into organisations. The real promise of leadership kindness comes from understanding that compassion or the lack thereof isn’t just something that’s interpersonal, but structural and systemic. If we can accept that racism is systemic and institutionalised, it stands to reason that justice and kindness can also be systematised. But the challenge in the short term will be to help individuals see the benefits interpersonally so they can build the capacity to mould teams and organisations that can follow suit in an authentic way.

Lili Powell is Julie Logan Sands associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia (UVA) Darden School of Business, and Kluge-Schakat professor and director of the Compassionate Care Initiative at UVA School of Nursing