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The Power of Kind Leadership: Boosting Performance through Heart-Centered Practices

Leading from heart

In previous posts, I shared about practicing kindness at work. After reading Bonnie Cheng's book "The Return on Kindness", I wanted to explore the topic of kind leadership further. In her book, leadership expert Bonnie Cheng makes the case that the most effective leaders combine both toughness and care in how they motivate teams and drive results. Taking a "kind leadership" approach builds deeper trust, inspires greater loyalty, and achieves higher performance from their people.


"Being tough and being kind are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive. If you have one without the other, your business cannot be well-run."

I was fascinated by her distinguishing kind leadership from mere "niceness". Many have a reaction that being nice can't result in real progress, but according to Cheng, kindness is not the same as being soft. Kind leaders are still demanding and hold teams accountable to high standards. The difference is they care deeply about their people's well-being and want them to succeed.


To illustrate varying leadership styles, Cheng introduces a framework that segments leaders into four categories - Pushover, Departed, Dictator, and Impact Driver. Pushovers lack direction and struggle to make tough calls. Departed leaders check out emotionally and aren't invested in their teams. Dictators take an authoritarian approach focused solely on results at the expense of their people. Impact Drivers skillfully balance both compassion and decisiveness. As I read this framework, I could see leaders I’ve known fit into each quadrant. It's interesting to reflect on the evolution of my leadership style throughout my career.


At the core of kind leadership's ability to achieve superior outcomes is trust. Cheng cites the work of thought leaders like Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, who determined trust is built on three primary drivers - authenticity, empathy and logic.


Authenticity means leaders show their genuine selves, including vulnerabilities, so others feel they interact with the real person beneath job titles or roles. This allows empathy to take root as colleagues sense their leader truly understands diverse perspectives and cares about individuals' needs. Authenticity is not about saying the right things all the time; it's about others feeling they can interact with the real you. Recall the townhall meetings we have attended that some leaders were extremely eloquent, and yet we don't feel connected with them? That is what authenticity sets apart.


The "Global Leadership Forecast 2023" by DDI polled over 14,000 leaders and found EMPATHY to be the most popular attribute of great leadership. This supports Cheng's framework that authentic care and understanding others' perspectives are paramount to building trusting relationships. Remember the 'how are you' we got asked at work? I remember how off-putting I felt when my manager told me to do XYZ right after I said "good" to their 'how are you?' In contrast, I also felt the magical caring connection when 'how are you' was being asked genuinely.


Logic supplements authentic care through competence, clarity of vision and executing plans effectively. But on its own, an overreliance on logic won't secure trust like an authentic, empathetic approach also does.


The shift to combining kindness may seem daunting. It takes inner strength to be genuinely empathetic, authentic and vulnerable as a leader. As James Rhee explained in his TedTalk, authenticity requires leaders to shed perceived weakness and openly share challenges without all the answers. This allows teams to connect through shared humanity rather than just roles. 


Recall the kindness you’ve received - may we pay it forward by spreading kindness beyond. Kindness is leadership’s most powerful currency.

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