Can you be a nice leader? How to grow as a leader and develop your ‘inner Jim’

October 27, 2016

A little while ago, someone sent me an article from the Havard Business Review about the dangers of hiring a nice CEO. I found I had quite a strong reaction just to the title. I know a number of nice, decent, successful CEOs, MDs and other leaders in senior positions and was primed to leap to their defence. Were they suggesting hiring a nasty CEO instead? (Spoiler alert – no they weren’t).


The dangers of hiring a nasty leader

The dangers of hiring a toxic leader are well-documented and, to my mind, outweigh the risks of being too nice. In fact, I wouldn’t dignify the ‘take no prisoners/rule by fear’ approach with the term leadership. Leadership implies that people willingly follow you. The best that the tyrant manager can hope for is grudging, resentful compliance. People don’t put themselves out for this kind of boss and anyone with marketable skills and a modicum of self-confidence (i.e. the type of people you want to keep) will look for alternative employment as soon as they can. So if nobody wants a nasty boss, what’s wrong with a nice one?

What do we mean by nice?

The dangers the HBR article highlighted about nice leaders were:

  • Being unable to say no and taking on too much
  • Finding it hard to give difficult feedback, so not addressing poor performance
  • Avoiding conflict and over-prioritising consensus and team harmony

These could all suggest someone who cares about people too much. The soft, caring manager who wants people to be happy and goes out of their way not to upset anyone. It’s a pattern you may recognise, in others or perhaps in yourself. I certainly see it in people I coach and in aspects of myself.

Who are we really concerned about?

But let’s look a little more closely, and more honestly, at what’s really going on here. Too often what is presented as a concern for others is actually a concern for ourselves Annoyed– a fear of not being liked or of people being angry with us. “I don’t want to upset people” often means “I don’t want people to be angry that I upset them”. Sometimes we care more about what people think of us than we genuinely care about the people themselves.

This idea about being too nice is not actually about an excess of empathy. It’s really about a lack of emotional robustness, something I’ve written about here before. Emotional robustness involves being able to maintain a positive sense of yourself and a calm emotional state, even when you’re not getting the response you want from others. Incidentally, don’t think that nasty managers are more emotionally robust than nice ones. They are often hugely concerned with how others see them, they just have a different priority. For them, it’s more important to be seen as powerful, shrewd and in control than to be liked. You only have to look at Donald Trump to see what happens when someone’s sense of himself as a powerful winner is threatened.

People-focused vs results-focused

A criticism often thrown at nice leaders is that they care more about people than results. They end up tolerating mediocrity because they don’t want to hurt people. This is actually the hallmark of leaders too afraid of what others think of them to tackle the things they know they should tackle. For me a good leader – whom I might easily call nice – is one who cares about people and cares about the performance of the organisation, but is less concerned with personal popularity (or indeed proving that they are number one). Popularity is often a bi-product of this kind of leadership, not a motivation for it.

Too good to be true?

It sounds like a tall order and this type of leadership does require a level of emotional maturity that not all of us achieve. But it does exist. Lots of people manage it some of the time and some people manage it a lot of the time. inspiring-speakerThe best example I ever met was a man I shall call Jim. Jim is an industry-leader in turning around failing manufacturing plants. He has a tried-and-tested way of doing this and his standards are exacting. People are left under no illusion that they will raise their game or there will be consequences. So far, he probably sounds like a demanding and not particularly nice leader. But Jim is also one of the warmest, most down-to-earth people you could hope to meet. In feedback from the shopfloor to management, he is described as “inspirational”. Trade unionists rally to his cause. People confide in him, even cry on his shoulder. His message, essentially, is “We can do this together”. People believe in him and begin to believe in – and expect more from – themselves. What he never focuses on is whether or not they like him. He’s just authentically himself, using his judgement to decide what he thinks is the right course of action, not the one with least resistance.

We can’t all aspire to be Jim, but we can try to be a bit more Jim-like.  You could start by being honest with yourself about your real motivation if you find yourself thinking “but I don’t want to upset him/her/them”. If you’re looking to grow as a leader and would like some support to develop your ‘inner Jim’, do get in touch:

Photo credits

Annoyed: Bark

Inspiring speaker:  National Renewable Energy Lab

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