Be Kind, Not Nice – Part Two

In part one, we left Karen* and Charlie* at a crossroads. Karen was uncertain how to proceed. I invited her to “be kind, not nice”.

Kind (adj.) is defined as, “Having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.” And its noun form as, “A group of people or things having similar characteristics.” I like to think of kindness as compassionate behavior that stems from recognition of our shared human experience.

Kind is honest.

As discussed in an earlier post, research shows that honesty is the most desired quality in leaders across time, cultures and economic sectors. We want our leaders to tell us the truth and trust that we are emotional adults who can handle it. Kind leaders believe that people are creative, resourceful and whole.

Karen met with Charlie to discuss what was needed from him in his new job. She invited him into an honest conversation about where he saw his strengths and opportunities, and shared her observations and questions. There were gaps between their perceptions. Some of her feedback was uncomfortable for Charlie but she never backed off or tried to “make it nice” for him. At the end of their meeting Charlie genuinely thanked Karen for the conversation. He expressed gratitude and relief. “For a long time I’ve felt like there’s something off,” he said. “Thank you for having the courage to tell me the truth and trusting that I’m a big enough person to hear it.”

Kind is compassionate.

Kind leaders recognize our shared humanity. We all have hopes, dreams and aspirations. We all have fears, blind spots and coping strategies. We are all precious and imperfect. Kind leaders are patient and tolerant. They walk in the shoes of others, curious about new perspectives. They trust others’ resourcefulness and offer support. They believe we are all on the same side, even when we disagree.

Before their meeting, we did a visualization to help Karen imagine what it might be like to receive the performance feedback she was about to deliver to Charlie. She realized it might be very uncomfortable, and sat quietly in reflection for a time so she could come to the meeting fully present. Even during moments when Charlie became emotional, Karen maintained a grounded, open presence. His tears were difficult for her to witness, but she knew that creating space for emotional expression was an important step toward building trust in their relationship and honestly exploring Charlie’s job possibilities. She shared a brief story about a work situation in which she had struggled with shame, and how the lessons learned from that had helped shape her as a leader. Charlie was surprised by Karen’s transparency and thanked her for “being so human.”

Kind is curious.

Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Kind leaders listen without judgment, to learn and understand. Even when they have a strong point of view they elicit the ideas of others, because they know that genuine inquiry creates better engagement and outcomes. They ask powerful questions.

When first presented with Karen’s feedback, Charlie got defensive. Rather than arguing the rightness of her position, Karen stepped back and got curious. She asked questions about Charlie’s aspirations, his self-assessment of skills and behaviors, what he liked and didn’t like about his job, and how he felt as a part of the organization. Where their assessments disagreed, she asked, “What meaning can we make of this? How might we understand our different perceptions?” Her insistence on inquiry created connection in service of solving a problem, rather than the disconnection of “I’m right-you’re wrong”. At the end, Charlie paused and said, “There are some things I need to learn if I’m going to be successful here.” To which Karen replied, “How can I support you in that?”

Kind is accountable.

Kind leaders recognize and support each person’s contribution. They articulate outcomes and success criteria, create explicit agreements about deliverables, offer support, clear barriers, and then get out of the way. They review progress and ask powerful questions when agreements aren’t met.

At the end of their conversation, Charlie told Karen he wanted to earn his place in the group and was committed to making the changes necessary to do so. They agreed on action steps, timing, and development resources. But as Charlie began practicing new behaviors, he found his energy drained. He missed his own deadlines. When Karen asked him what was happening, he said, “I don’t know. My heart’s not in it, I guess.” She asked, “If you could have any job you want, would this be it?” “No!” he burst out, and then laughed. “I can’t believe I just told you that!” Karen laughed too, and said, “Well I’m glad you did because now we can explore what you really want to do.”

Karen helped Charlie see himself and his talents more clearly, and identify work that ignited his passion. A few months after joining Karen’s team he left the organization to start his own business. “I never thought I’d be doing this [work],” he said. “Without Karen’s leadership, I wouldn’t have had the courage or belief in myself to go for it.” Karen then filled Charlie’s position with a candidate who not only was qualified, but delighted with the opportunity.

Speaking of accountable, remember Charlie’s previous managers? Once Karen and Charlie were aligned, they invited them to a meeting. Without blame or judgment, Karen and Charlie shared the lessons they had learned as a result of integrating Charlie into the team. They then invited each of the other managers to share anything about their experience of performance management that could promote organizational learning. It was awkward at first, but once everyone realized the inquiry was genuinely in service of a greater good, Charlie’s prior managers participated enthusiastically. They felt “like a burden had been lifted”, “hopeful” and “a relief”. One of them privately apologized to Charlie and asked for his forgiveness, which he readily gave. Learning on many levels happened that day.

Kindness calls forth the best in ourselves and others. When kindness is a cornerstone of an organization’s culture, behaviors such as honesty, transparency, trust, creativity, innovation, accountability, and appropriate risk-taking all contribute to more robust employee engagement, productivity and results.

*All of the client examples I write about in this blog are fictional. There is no Karen and no Charlie. Everything that happens in this story did actually happen, but across many different clients in different organizations.


Laurel Callan


Be Kind, Not Nice – Part One

One day, Karen* arrived for a session late and clearly agitated. When I asked what was happening, she explained she was coming from a meeting with Charlie*, who had just been assigned to her team. A company veteran, Charlie consistently received high performance and retention ratings. Karen was excited to have someone of his caliber joining the team. But upon meeting him, she was horrified. “Charlie in person is nothing like Charlie on paper.” she lamented. “He doesn’t have the skills or presence we need in the job. So now I have an employee I can’t use in an environment of tight headcount. This is a disaster.”

We agreed that she would invoke her ardent curiosity, and reach out to his prior managers to get more information. It turns out they agreed with her. He wasn’t performing at a level that warranted such high ratings, but because they didn’t want to disempower him, they chose to emphasize his strengths and downplay areas of improvement. Rather than upset Charlie, they withheld some important truths about his performance, and settled for less until they could move him on in the organization.

How could this happen among smart, seasoned, well-meaning leaders?

As herd animals, we humans are hardwired to connect. We want people to like, trust, and respect us. We want our value and contributions affirmed. We want to belong. This is not just pleasant; it’s a psycho-biological survival strategy. And so, from very early in life, we learn to “be nice”. If the herd accepts us, we get to eat another day. If not, we get eaten.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines nice as, “Giving pleasure or satisfaction; pleasant or attractive.” When we identify as nice, we organize our behaviors around pleasing others, being liked, and gaining others’ approval.

As illustrated in the story of Karen and Charlie, “nice” as a mindset creates all kinds of problems for otherwise skillful leaders. How can you challenge, debate, lead change, or give uncomfortable feedback when being liked and getting others’ approval is essential? How can you tell someone the truth if the truth isn’t pleasing?

You can’t. Worse yet, nice becomes emotionally taxing over time. All that pleasing and settling requires that we compromise our own vision and values. Then it’s only a matter of time before we start feeling resentment because we’ve abandoned ourselves. Perhaps we rationalize our self-abandonment by blaming someone else (boss, colleague, the organization) to deflect responsibility for our plight. Eventually our passion and resilience dwindle, and resentment starts leaking out as passive-aggressive behavior. Bottom line, being nice sells everybody short.

In Part Two we’ll explore what it means to be kind instead of nice, and how kind leadership inspires the best in people, organizations, and the world.

*All of the client examples I write about in this blog are fictional. There is no Karen and no Charlie. Everything that happens in this story did actually happen, but across many different clients in different organizations.

Laurel Callan

Outsmarting the Imposter

stamp fake with red text on whiteFor some of us it speaks in a silky whisper. For others, the tone is derisive, condescending, or downright mean. You know the voice I’m talking about. The one in your head that, in those moments when you most need confidence and support, says something like, “Nice try, but you’re an impostor and it’s only a matter of time before everybody finds out.”

After years of coaching leaders, I’ve come to believe that the impostor syndrome is a nearly universal human experience, especially among high achievers facing an unfamiliar challenge. Many leaders work valiantly to overcome its erosive message, investing precious time and energy that otherwise could be used to create, connect, and inspire.

Nowhere was my impostor syndrome more evident than during the startup of my practice 17 years ago. After a few months of struggle, one friend gently observed that I was unlikely to find many clients between my couch and refrigerator. He gave me the bad news: get out there and network. Suddenly I felt myself back in 6th grade at a pool party where the boys slow danced with every girl but me. Fear of rejection had me in its grip and I was stuck.

After several days of deep reflection and brownie hot fudge sundaes, I hired a coach.

We worked for several months and did all sorts of things to open up space for change. We created a vision, identified and addressed behaviors and beliefs that stood in the way, and developed a new personal narrative that more accurately described my current capability and the possibilities into which I was growing. The work was rigorous but fun, and I began to feel more in control. We crafted tangible action steps. You guessed it, one of those steps was networking.

While no longer terrified, I was still skeptical and had lots of reasons why networking wasn’t for me. My coach listened respectfully, and then said, “Networking is talking to people. Isn’t that what you love doing for a living? Talking to people?” That moment was like a brain transplant without the mess. In an instant, something I had dreaded for months became fun and exciting. I started visualizing people as colorfully wrapped packages, waiting to be opened so I could discover the beauty inside.

All that time I thought I was learning to network with other people, it turns out I was meeting my best self. And in that process I discovered many things. That I see the best in people. That I care deeply. That I have some valuable skills and the opportunity to learn a lot more. That I’m not perfect. But an impostor? Nope.

Laurel Callan

Who’s the Most Credible Leader?


National politics is not in my wheelhouse but business leadership is, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the 2016 US presidential candidates through that lens. If leadership credibility were the only criterion, whom would we choose?

There are lots of tools to assess leadership. I chose The Leadership Challenge, a framework introduced in 1983 by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. The purpose of their research has been to identify the core characteristics that predict exemplary leadership. They’ve surveyed tens of thousands of everyday people to determine what we most want and admire in our leaders. I chose their research as a foundation for looking at my question because 1) it’s accessible (this is a blog, not a PhD dissertation), and 2) it’s been statistically validated across a large and diverse population over more than 30 years. I think we could say that the population of the United States is pretty large and diverse.

Kouzes and Posner discovered that the top four characteristics we want in our leaders are consistent across time, cultures, and economic sectors. The results have remained constant through economic growth and recession, introduction of the Internet, globalization of business, and changes in the political environment. More than three decades after beginning their research, it turns out we still want our leaders to embody the same four characteristics in the same order of importance:

  1. Honest. Truthful, ethical, and principled. Worthy of trust. Behaves with solid integrity. High say-do ratio.
  2. Forward-looking. Has a vision for the future and knows where s/he and the organization are going. Connects his or her vision with the hopes and dreams of constituents.
  3. Inspiring. Enthusiastic, energetic and positive about the future. Uplifts people’s spirits and gives them hope.
  4. Competent. Able to get things done. Brings relevant experience and a track record of positive results.

Leaders who consistently embody these four qualities are seen by their constituents as credible. In the words of Kouzes and Posner, “Credibility is the foundation of leadership… If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.” (Fourth Edition, pp. 37-8.)

Now that we have a way of assessing credible leadership in the business world, how about politics? Can the qualities we want and admire in our political leaders be that different? Let’s find out.

At this writing, 2 democrats and 4 republicans remain in the US presidential race: Hillary Clinton (D), Ted Cruz (R), John Kasich (R), Marco Rubio (R), Bernie Sanders (D), and Donald Trump (R).

How would you rate each candidate with respect to the qualities of Honesty, Forward-looking, Inspiring, and Competent? Click here to cast your vote. It’s quick, your responses will be anonymous, and anyone in the world can participate. If I get enough responses, the consolidated results will be published in a future blog.

Whatever judgments we may have about the person who takes the presidential oath, I think most of us would agree that s/he is the most visible and powerful leader in the world today. This person has the power to influence not just your life and mine, but the lives of everyone on our planet. To whom will you give that power?

Laurel Callan