NextGen Know-How: Can a Leader Be Kind and Effective?

female manager shaking hand to congratulate female employee
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence LLC

3 minutes

Honesty and respect lead to a successful organization and culture—avoiding confrontation does not.

In a recent podcast episode, Katie Couric interviewed Bob Iger, executive chairman and former CEO of Disney. Couric remarked that Iger has a reputation in the business industry of being a nice guy. She asked him how he can be nice and also make the tough decisions that are required as a leader of a global company.

His reply was profound.

Iger said that he doesn’t think he is nice—rather, he is kind. Nice is avoiding confrontation and sometimes avoiding the truth. It’s telling people what they want to hear, even if it’s not honest. Being nice can get in the way of effective leadership.

Kindness is recognizing the human being in everybody—the person who you are firing or giving bad news to is still a good person. Iger said he tries to demonstrate fairness and empathy when delivering bad news.

One of the biggest challenges leaders face is having to make hard decisions that often impact people significantly. Many managers avoid tough conversations and confrontation because they want to be liked. But that is not effective leadership. To build successful teams and cultures, leaders need to not only ensure teams are cohesive but that they are productive and delivering results. There will be times when leaders have to make decisions that may be hard for an individual but are best for the organization as a whole.

If you have ever worked on a team that had an underperforming employee and the manager did nothing about it, you know how frustrating that can feel. High performers don’t want to work with underperforming employees or teammates. When leaders don’t take action, they do a disservice to their top talent, and these high performing employees often become disengaged.

However, you can be both kind and effective as a leader. In fact, the most exceptional, successful leaders demonstrate kindness in their actions.

One of my mentors, Brené Brown, has a saying, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” Leaders often convince themselves that they are being kind by not having an uncomfortable conversation with an employee. The manager doesn’t want to hurt the employee’s  feelings, so they avoid the situation altogether. But in these situations, leaders are actually being unkind. Not sharing with an employee truthful information that will help them to improve performance is unkind. Not being clear about your expectations or what has to improve to be successful is unkind. Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.

Here are some examples of the difference between kind and unkind leadership:

  • Kind leaders provide specific, meaningful feedback in a timely manner. Unkind leaders hold back the truth to “preserve” the relationship (which ultimately damages the relationship and the team.)
  • Kind leaders prioritize their employees and spend time coaching and developing them for current and future success. Unkind leaders spend their time on tasks, not people, and let their employees flounder.
  • Kind leaders form connections and develop relationships with their employees by reaching out to check in and getting to know their employees as humans. Unkind leaders don’t see the value in getting to know people—their employees are simply paid to do a job.
  • Kind leaders catch people doing things right and appreciate and recognize their contributions. Unkind leaders look for the faults in people and react with blame and finger pointing.

We need to raise the bar in leadership. You can be honest and direct with people while still being respectful and kind. It may not be easy to deliver tough news or make hard decisions, but great leaders take the time and care necessary to demonstrate respect and kindness.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or

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Learn more about kindness in leadership and how to frame tough conversations in this video featuring Laurie Maddalena.
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