Some time ago, I made a conscious decision to sign off all of my emails with Kindest, Charlotte. Not, Best Regards, Best, Sincerely or Yours, but a salutation that intentionally affirms the type of collaborator and leader I aspire to be. I hope this small step communicates to all those with whom I exchange messages that kindness is one of my core personal values, not just a work persona. Leaders are in the spotlight after all and talking the talk is key, but walking the walk is even more vital for credibility. The word “kindest” hopefully informs others of the manner in which I try to think, discuss, and operate in the workplace, and also how I expect to be treated in return. It is a way of thinking and acting.
About eight years ago, I attended a yoga retreat in Turkey. I had reached a point in my life where I was searching for answers about who I was and where I was going in life—personally and professionally. One might say it was a life hack of some sort. During that week, I met a diverse group of individuals, all with stories to tell and all equally eager to find their signposts in life. The retreat provided me with much reflection time, some guided and some individual, which helped me understand why I make the choices I do, and how they impact my lifestyle. I realised that in order to be on the road to greater happiness and fulfilment, I needed to be more intentional about my thoughts and actions which impact my habits. On that yoga mat overlooking the Turquoise Coast, I resolved to live a life of kindness from that point onwards, and made it my intention for everything I think, say and do. With this commitment, my behaviours started to change: I became more interested in journaling, yoga, environmental sustainability, conscious consumerism, vegetarianism (on a good day, I’m a vegan) and I tried to soften my approach to people. So, why and how is this all relevant to leadership?
Leaders are not lone wolves, and if leaders view themselves as solitary creatures, they cannot truly be leading since leadership requires a group setting and often times, can include the navigation of some pretty complex social dynamics. Simply, leadership requires inspiring others, which does not necessarily happen with only within minds—leaders must appeal to hearts as well. Leaders will not influence and persuade others if the journey ahead promotes power and glory for just one individual; there has to be the prospect of positive change for all, a call to action for the collective greater good. To be a servant leader, one who puts herself at the disposal of others for the good of the institution and its community, leading with kindness is a powerful way to appeal to the heart and lead from the back.
Kindness involves acts of generosity, love, and care for others (love is a word that is often seen as too delicate or “special” to use, but it simply means to put others first). Traditional images have often focused more on the leader’s technical skills and subject knowledge rather than her emotional capacity. The digital revolution provides us with analytics, knowledge, and power at the touch of a button, which can free the leader to act with a more personal touch, connecting with others in more humane and supportive ways, usually face-to-face (though nowadays this may mean through Skype), finding out about their interests, home circumstances, and personal values, and most importantly, asking regularly about circumstances in a non-threatening way. Asking about how a daughter’s play went, how a sickly parent is fairing, or whether the other enjoyed that trip to Rome are some of the most effective ways of building loyalty, trust, and connections. Reciprocally, kindness means having the strength and vulnerability to share similar personal information as well. This fosters openness and empathy, allowing colleagues to see the human behind the job role, and setting the tone for positive interactions which are vital during collaborations. The popular saying is that people don’t leave organizations, they leave leaders.
Kind leaders must accompany action and the direction of that must be clearly articulated by the leader through the organisation’s mission and vision – it is not about operating in a directionless, vacuous, feel-good air. Leaders should provide clarity, consistency and communication, and this is more easily achieved with a pleasant, fair and calm voice. Often, it is not what one says that matters, but how one says it. Gentle honesty, positivity, neutral tones should drive ongoing feedback to those who veer off course, complemented with support plans and achievable targets as necessary. Giving time to others is the one most valuable gestures for humanity. Through setting the tone for interactions, leaders encourage their teams to act similarly with one another which will in turn, positively impact organisational culture, a crucial component to those working with learning and teaching as its heart. As Simon Sinek points out, ‘Exceptional organisations prioritise the well-being of their people and, in return, their people give everything they’ve got to protect and advance the well-being of one another and the organization.’ It is part of the cycle for the greater good.
Most of all, leading with kindness nurtures self-confidence, resilience and open-mindedness, which enable people to think big and take risks. Kindness builds strength by embracing hard decisions, inspiring resilience, facing perceived setbacks as opportunities for collective and personal growth, and encourages different perspectives to enrich discussions and strategy. Leading with kindness means treating colleagues as adults, as worthy professionals who are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and value the wellbeing of the entire group. Sheryl Sandberg once said that ‘Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.’ A true measure of my leadership success lies in the answer to the following: What do the teachers do in my absence? A top down, more authoritative leader may bring around change at a faster rate, but this style won’t empower people’s thinking, only adjust their behaviours and as a result, change is unlikely to be long-lasting.
So I return to that closing line of my emails: Kindest, Charlotte. By remaining true to my words, I vow to hold myself consistently to account for the preceding content of emails and my associated actions. We certainly get better at leadership through practice and I accept that I do not always get it right. I embrace John C Maxwell’s words with an open mind as well as an open heart: ‘The more intentional you are about your leadership growth, the greater your potential for becoming the leader you’re capable of being. Never stop learning.’ Like all other human beings, I know I am work in progress – the key is to identify core values and set oneself intentions: changes in thought will affect changes in words and consequently, changes in action. In a world that moves and changes so quickly, new ways of working and thinking challenge us continuously, but leaders with integrity, morality and humility will never be outdated.