Charles Handy fears that kindness may not be conducive to money-making. It is, however, conducive to a happy life
Is kindness a virtue or a weakness? I was brought up – as a son of the Rectory in the Irish countryside – to be kind to those worse off than me. If the doorbell rang, my father said, “Always open it – it might be someone in need whom you can help.” I believe that, I like it.
A friend of mine, Gay Haskins, recently published a book called Kindness In Leadership, because she believes it’s notably lacking.
Mind you, combining kindness and leadership is not as easy as you might think. As I found out.
In my first command at the oil company Shell, I went out of my way to be kind and nice to all of my little team in Borneo where I ran the Shell subsidiary. My superiors back in Singapore were not impressed. They compared me to the mythical Chinese general who supposedly said to his troops, “I’m your leader and I’m right behind you.”
“You put too much trust in your intelligence,” said my superiors in Singapore, “but you can’t lead by starting with the back foot, let alone the back room. You’ve got to be out in front, giving an example of what you want them to be. It’s character, not intelligence, that makes a difference.”
Well, I obviously failed because they sent me back to London after two years and I devoted myself to writing about those people who did combine kindness with leadership, as well as those who should. Much more comfortable to be sitting in an armchair than walking off my back foot. Had this been now of course, I would have pointed to Joe Biden, who seems to do pretty well with being kind. “Nice but dull,” my American friends say of him. And lucky man, the less he does and the less he says, the more everybody seems to warm to him. Kindness is his basic ID.
I have great sympathy for Gay’s book on kindness, and it would be nice if being kind also proved to be conducive to better returns in business. Unfortunately the evidence is against it. The two great maestros of American management in recent years were Jack Welch, the boss of General Electric, and of course Steve Jobs of Apple.
General Electric is America’s biggest and most profitable manufacturing business. Welch was known as Neutron Jack for his ability to get rid of swathes of people without in any way damaging the infrastructure of the business. He was also fond of his 10 per cent rule – in any unit, he liked to reward or promote the top 10 per cent and fire the bottom 10. It keeps them on their toes, he said. But making people be kept on their toes for a long period of time is not nice and not kind. There was some compensation: those that were fired were quickly picked up by competitors, who hoped that some of Neutron Jack’s ways had rubbed off on them.
And then of course there was Steve Jobs, who was notoriously difficult to work with; cruel and bullying to anyone who disagreed with him, but also a genius. His imagination, his ideas, and ultimately his products have, as he promised, changed the lives and work of almost every individual on the planet. People tell me it was very exciting to work at Apple, provided you didn’t get too close to the man himself. But in my experience, “exciting” is not an easy or fun way to live.
My Shell superiors wanted me to behave like a lieutenant in the First World War, leading my men out to the trenches into a hail of enemy fire with a little wooden stick under my arm as a symbol of my authority as they followed me into certain death. If that’s kindness, it’s not my sort of kindness, thank you very much.
So where does that leave us? Well, you are what you are. I am by nature kind to people; it’s the way I was brought up, as I said. Help a man up when he’s down, I say. Give him a piece of bread and send him on his way. And help him to have high aspirations and to do his best with what he’s got.
And run your organisation for the benefit of others, not for yourself. That’s the main message, I think. Do as you would be done by, teach people fairly. Work for those less well off than yourself.
Teach your children to be generous to those who are less well off than themselves and not to be jealous.
In general, in an organisation, I’d rather be kind than a martinet – particularly if being a martinet means leading your men to suicide.