My very first boss led our team from a place of wrath and terror. We feared his raised voice and demonizing glare. He could melt your self-esteem with one withering look. If one of us made a mistake (or sometimes, even if we didn’t), the thing we would fear the most was his reaction.
He may have meant it as leadership, a foolproof way to bring a team to victory. To me, it was simply a way to wallpaper over cracks. If we made mistakes, we would hide them. If we forgot things, we would lie. I always wondered if his rage was really necessary. Could you be an effective leader without being mean to people? There had to be another way to run a business.
Six years into running my own business, I have found a raised voice to be one of the least useful habits to have in leading a team. Here are three essential skills that I believe have enabled leadership to thrive at every level of our organization.
Kindness is just like knitting. Contrary to what you may have been told, kindness is like any other skill that can be learned and developed. Just like dribbling a ball or riding a unicycle, some people may have more natural ability than others. But no matter your starting point, practice and perseverance will strengthen your kindness muscles.
Kindness is perhaps the most crucial skill that any leader can possess. Here’s why.
Hurdles are inevitable in business. Whether it’s unexpected turns in the market, the failure of a new product or service, hiring the wrong people, or losing a major client, you are guaranteed to face seemingly insurmountable challenges on your entrepreneurial journey. And when faced with hard times, the one consistent tool in our toolbox is kindness. Whether practicing kindness to yourself or to others, it is often the only thing left when you don’t know what to do or say.
As a business owner and employer, I have found kindness to be infinitely more effective in motivating my team, clients, and target markets than every other tactic. It is more impactful in meeting my goals than fear, intimidation, headstrong leadership, or anything else I have tried or experienced.
Kind leaders create inclusive and yet vigorous environments. Kindness is not about being nice and ineffective. It is about being honest and direct. It is about knowing that often the kind thing to do is the hardest thing to do. It is about treating others the way you would want to be treated — without exception.
Every single successful invention, idea, or program started with a question. Someone, somewhere looked at the status quo and thought, “I wonder what would happen if I tried it another way?”
Curiosity is the yeast of effective leadership. The most impactful leaders I have worked with are not afraid of experimentation. They realize that failure is a pit stop on the way to success, and they keep trying things. But to try things, you must be curious. You must wonder to yourself, “What would happen if I moved that person into a different role in the company?” or “What would be the smallest thing I could do to have the biggest impact on staff morale?”
If you find that you are not a naturally curious person, there are a few things you could do.
One, ensure you have people on your leadership team who are curious. Surround yourself with people who ask questions, and avoid people who want to do something a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been done.
Two, expose yourself to new ways of thinking as often as you can. Travel to new places, read different kinds of books, listen to a new variety of music. Spend social time with people you know who have opposite interests than you. Diversity of opinion and experiences often lead to peak curiosity. As you experience new things, you may find yourself questioning the old ways.
Lastly, practice at first by scheduling “curiosity time”. This is ten or fifteen minutes at a time, where you schedule time to try experimenting with your thoughts. Think of parts of your business or job that have been functioning a certain way for a while, and think about what would have to happen to improve them. What would an A+ grade look like for every aspect of your life? What would have to change in order to reach that grade? Start small, and you’ll find that way of thinking becomes habitual over time
3. Critical Thought
After curiosity, comes critical thought. Not every seemingly good idea is actually a good idea. The same thing goes for bad ideas. Not every suggestion is worth pursuing, and not every idea has been thought of yet. I think of curiosity as the idea generator and of critical thought as the idea editor.
Developing the ability to assess and weigh options, and then make clear and final decisions is the hallmark of strong leadership.
I remember very clearly the first time I drove a car after I passed my driver’s test. I came to a junction and wasn’t sure if I had time to get through the intersection before the oncoming car reached the same point in the road. For the first time in my short driving career, there was no one in the passenger seat to consult. I had to figure it out for myself.
Leadership is just like that. Perhaps you’ve experienced being asked a question by an employee or client, and you felt the impulse to turn and ask someone else what they would do. And yet, there is no one to ask.
Being able to think through the options critically – that is, from multiple angles and without the discrimination of your own unfair bias – is what sets a good leader apart.
The good news is that much like kindness and curiosity, critical thought is a skill that can be developed. Like any other thing you would want to learn, following this simple three-step process will help you get started:
- Identify the skill you want to develop and define what success looks like for yourself.
- Make space to practice that skill, and be kind to yourself when you lapse into old habits.
- Practice persistent practice. Never give up, no matter how discouraged you may get at times. Keep practicing, and over time, it will transform from conscious effort into an easy habit.
I have found kindness, curiosity, and critical thought to be the three skills that I use in leadership every single day. I call upon these skill sets in bad times and use them to maximize the good times. All three are skills I have developed over time – and continue to do so. Take a leap and get started – you won’t be sad that you did.