Great Leadership Starts with Kindness


“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

By Yvonne Milosevic

If ever there was a moment the world could use a little more kindness, now is the time. The pandemic has caused unprecedented stress on our mental health as our home and work lives blur together. Nonetheless, we continue striving to maintain productivity and engagement on the job.

Despite the universal impact of COVID-19, only 45% of employees recently surveyed by Gallup strongly agree their employer cares about their wellbeing. Granted, there is no immediate or easy fix for our global problems. But there is one thing managers can do to improve their workplaces today.

“I believe that a powerful, fundamental leadership strategy is being largely overlooked,” says Boris Groysberg, professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. In a recent article for HBS’s Working Knowledge, Groysberg and his co-author Susan Seligson say the solution is “the most innately human one: Be Kind.”

Leading with Kindness

According to science, everyone benefits from a kind leader. Happy employees are healthy employees, a study conducted by the University of Michigan and McGill University found. Not only that, we work harder when we’re happy.

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy, a lecturer at Harvard Business School, also considers kindness the key to successful leadership.

“Most leaders today tend to emphasize their strength, competence, and credentials in the workplace, but that is exactly the wrong approach,” she writes. “A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth.”

While kindness is not a specialized skill—anyone can do it—there are ways to learn how to become kinder. University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson and researcher Helen Weng studied how we can train our brains to become more compassionate.

Like physical and academic skills, compassion appears not to be a fixed trait and can be enhanced with training and practice, Davidson explains. Here’s how Weng describes it:

“It’s kind of like weight training … we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”


6 Simple Ways to Practice Kind Leadership

Groysberg lays out six simple yet effective phrases leaders can adopt to show kindness and empathy to their employees.

I hear you. “Really listen. Be fully present and don’t judge,” Groysberg says. “Encourage employees’ questions and concerns. Listen actively—no side glances at the phone.”

Are you okay? “Show a willingness to provide comfort and monitor for signs of distress such as social withdrawal and poor performance,” he advises.

What can we do to help? “Being kind might also involve taking an active role in offering mental health resources or creating a virtual support group or sounding board,” Groysberg notes.

I’m here for you. “Let your employees know routinely that you are there for them when they need to share concerns or simply require a sympathetic, nonjudgmental ear. Consider making yourself available at times outside work hours; these are not normal times,” he suggests.

I know you’re doing the best you can. In times of crisis, bosses need to adjust their expectations, Groysberg notes. “People are reporting they are working harder than they did pre-COVID. This makes perfect sense; as layoffs and furloughs skyrocket, employees live in fear of losing their jobs.”

Thank you. “Say it with sincerity and say it often,” he advises.

Pay it Forward

Finally, we’ll leave you with this thought, courtesy of Dr. Jud Brewer in Medium: Kindness is more contagious than COVID-19. He says, “Every time you see someone being kind, you have just been contaminated with those mental droplets of common humanity — making it more likely that you will be infected with the kindness contagion.”