Killing me Softly – Is ‘Kindness’ Killing Your Leadership Capability?

Kindness is a beautiful attribute. When I meet someone new, one of the first questions that come to mind is, is this person kind? For me, the ability to be kind signals a person occupies a higher level of development when acted upon for the benefit of others and not motivated by unmet needs.

Kindness builds social fabric; we are innately drawn towards kindness. Most of us hope for a world where kindness is commonplace and abundant. Many people commit their entire adult existence to make the world a kinder place.

What does kindness look like from a leadership perspective? What is kind leadership?

My definition of kindness from a leadership perspective is the creation of organisations where the capabilities and talents of all are utilised, developed, and recognised in the pursuit of purposeful work within a sustainable organisation that delivers value for all stakeholders. 

Many leaders believe they are being kind to their people when what they are doing is masking an undeveloped capability to lead effectively behind what they argue is moral behaviour. They claim this is kindness; I argue it is not.


Behaviours that De-rail Leadership Occur in Two Major Forms

The first significant derailer is dominance, which I describe as too much of someone. Imagine your leadership volume is cranked so high that everyone nearby is deafened by your will and your thoughts and ideas. Your way is the only way, and anyone else is merely in the way. 

Your overbearing will and aversion to listening to others drives only compliance and stifle the development and creativity of others. Your voice is the only voice. The agenda of these leaders usually focus on themselves. Stripped of autonomy and any feelings of competence, followers disengage. What might have been interesting, stimulating work is now a chore and becomes a resented obligation. 

The second major derailer of effective leadership is deference, a form of submission of will to the overriding needs of others. Leaders with this deferent style crave a sense of safety which they fulfil by complying with the requirements and expectations of others, rather than promoting and backing their unique leadership vision. These leaders take people-pleasing to the extreme. 

These leaders fear rejection and avoid any action that puts them in situations where rejection is a risk, including saying no, setting clear and firm expectations, or managing performance where providing honest feedback is key to overall success.

If you have engagement surveys in your workplace, it is likely your organisation scores poorly on managing poor performance. This is because all organisations have leaders with deferent leadership styles. What compounds the issue is when one leader with a deferent leadership style report to a similar leader. Here we see real stagnation with all its unmoving fallout.

You cannot possess a deferent leadership style and deliver high performance. The two ways of being are opposite to each other. Supporting and challenging yourself and others to achieve outcomes is too painful for leaders with a deferent leadership style.

Let’s not confuse kindness with deference. Not being able to stand up for what you believe in or want to achieve or the ability to say no is not kindness.

Kindness is providing honest feedback that a task is not done well. It helps the person undertaking the work improve. It would be unkind to let that person go along for months on end thinking they are doing well when in fact, they have been lulled into thinking poorly completed work was good work for months on end.

This is cruel as it fails to develop a team member’s capability, something I believe everyone has a right to as part of the psychological contract between a leader and team member. Leaving great potential unrealised is a waste of human capability and a loss for everyone.

Being kind means being able to say no. If a child asked you to buy them four Big Macs, you would say no automatically, probably without even thinking or considering the request. I don’t know anyone who would not say no.

Saying no to a child is not a high stakes situation and, therefore, easy to do. A leader with a deferent leadership style finds saying no to an adult far more challenging. 

Saying no or setting expectations means you are willing to stand up for what you believe in. It means you are willing to play for higher stakes by affirming your position. You risk conflict with another. This is painful for leaders with a deferent leadership style. Their coping style usually manifests in avoidant behaviour; achieving outcomes takes a backseat if what they perceive as conflict threatens their sense of self. 


Hiding Behind Morality – Coping Strategies of Deferent Leaders 

When leaders with a deferent leadership style need a critical task completed, there are usually two potential outcomes. 

The first is the work is done well because of dedicated, hardworking team members. These team members require little feedback and will deliver under this leadership. Whether they are sufficiently challenged to grow and develop is a separate issue.

The second outcome is when team members may lack motivation or direction. This usually ends in failure. Unable to hold team members accountable, leaders with deferent leadership styles try to bargain with team members to complete the required work on time. Of course, we know it is unlikely to be effective.

Suppose you question a leader with a deferent leadership style about the failed delivery. In this case, they will usually defend the lack of motivation from the team by sighting high workloads and other competing priorities. Leaders with deferent styles will protect their team’s failure gaining kudos from their team for standing up for them. 

Team members protect these leaders, viewing them as compassionate and caring people. Team members know these leaders will tolerate this failure to deliver, so the status quo remains unchanged. The team may trundle along; however, it won’t become high performing as its members lack the level of challenge to develop innate capability. 

Leaders with a deferent leadership style will self-deceive themselves by convincing themselves the request was too hard in the first place. The sense of self is therefore protected.

This leader enjoys the approval given for defending poor performance by team members who appreciate not being held to account. This meets the need for the leader with a deferent style to belong and provides the sense of security they so badly crave, and so the cycle repeats.  


Deferent Behaviour, Where Does it Originate? 

Being able to say no, set boundaries and stand up and fight what you believe in requires integrating what psychologists call our shadow., or the natural aggressive drives which we don’t like to admit are a part of all of us.

Integration of these aggressive drives in a functional way brings to the fore a whole person who does not feel discomfort is saying no or setting boundaries or expectations. This complete integrated version of the self is far more effective as a leader.


How do Deferent Leaders Survive in Organisations? 

Most large organisations tend to have command and control cultures, thinking it short term and focusing on short-term outputs. Work centres around targets. KPIs, SLA’ and profits.

Leaders with a deferent leadership style are seen as loyal and committed by more domineering, controlling leaders. Many authoritarian leaders will recruit more submissive personalities consciously or unconsciously to maintain their power base and the status quo.

Leaders with deferent leadership styles are good at carrying out instructions. When they come across someone who does not want to comply with their requests, they often leverage the authority of a more senior leader rather than move towards embracing their power. Deferent leaders can often be heard saying, “the director wants this to be done”. This avoids them putting their own needs on the line and risk rejection while being able to still achieve at a lower leadership level.


How Not to Help a Leader with a Deferent Style Evolve?

Here are some approaches that are doomed to fail. I suggest avoiding these at all costs.

Firstly, do not tell a leader with a deferent leadership style they are too soft or need to toughen up. They will only interpret it as you are telling them to embrace being unkind, something they feel morally opposed to doing.

This approach does not work. In your attempts to try to ‘toughen’ them up, you will end up appearing like a parent who puts boxing gloves onto their child who is a victim of the school bully, “go on thump them”, not a good look. This ‘toughen up’ approach merely paints you as the hard-nosed leader, the person they do not want to become. 


Can Deferent Leaders Develop? 

The good news is that leaders with a deferent leadership style can change. Part of coaching these leaders is a reorientation regarding what kindness is and becoming comfortable in learning to meet their own needs without fear of rejection. Healing and integrating their shadow can help these leaders to begin to develop a sense of self that has an internal locus of control. 

Once leaders with a deferent leadership style understand their avoidance of what they perceive as conflict is doing harm, taking the first steps becomes more manageable.

Many leaders start their leadership journey with this leadership style. Around 80% of all leaders have a significant leadership derailer, either dominance or deferent. Only 20% of all leaders lack any significant derailer, most of us all have something to work on. 

It is quite normal to have a deferent leadership style and overcoming its drawbacks is part of all leaders’ developmental journey. If you feel that some of the traits you have read in this article might relate to you, please reach out and talk about how coaching might help you become the effective leader that is latent within you.


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