Effective Leadership: Great CEOs Aren’t Nice!

From the minute we engage with other humans (and even pets!) our parents tell us, “Be nice!” This is intended to be a catchall for don’t hit, scream, cry or make someone else feel bad. “Now look at what you did! Little Lisa is crying! Be nice!”

As we get older, we’re rewarded for being nice. When my kids were in elementary school, their teachers frequently complimented them for being nice, as in, “He hasn’t turned in any of his homework and has failed the past three tests, but he’s such a nice boy!”

As adults, we continue to be rewarded for being nice. My wife is nice. When someone knocks on the door trying to sell magazine subscriptions or cookies or trim our trees, she happily has a meaningful conversation with whoever interrupted dinner. Even when she says no, she says it nicely and only after much justification as to why she doesn’t need the trees trimmed or another subscription to a magazine full of ads for $6,000 couches.

There isn’t much harm in all of this except for lost time and too many Girl Scout cookies in the pantry. However, when we advise or lead and manage others, being nice is ineffective.

There’s a substantial difference between being nice (“Don’t make Little Lisa cry!”) and being kind. In the words of a friend, nice is borne out of fear and kind is borne out of love. Now I’m not going to get all mushy on you (that wouldn’t be kind), but he’s spot-on. You tell someone you love that he or she is making a big mistake, even at the risk of offending the person.

My wife doesn’t want to offend the salesperson, so she sacrifices her time to alleviate any possible rejection on the salesperson’s part. However, a key resource that salesperson has is time. Spending inordinate amounts of time with nice people who’ll eventually tell you no only after they’ve gotten to know you is not kind. A kind response might be, “I’m not interested and don’t want you to waste your time on me because I’m not purchasing anything.”

When my two daughters were still living at home, I could count on them to be kind and tell me that I looked like a nerd when I pulled on some old clothes. I appreciated that. I also appreciate it when someone tells me I look foolish with a piece of spinach in my teeth rather than their hoping it’ll come out before I get home and look in the mirror.

Let’s take this nice versus kind behavior to the work environment. Nice managers will always find something to compliment. Kind managers will tell you what you need to know to succeed, even when the message is that you’re screwing up. Nice leaders don’t want anyone to feel bad but, in the end, many do — especially the shareholders. Kind leaders know that leaving weak people on the team means it won’t succeed as quickly or as well. Nice leaders don’t enforce the rules if someone will get upset. Tardy behavior is allowed and work product is weak because to change behavior would require uncomfortable conversations. Kind leaders know that pushing people to be better, pointing out weaknesses and strengths and having difficult conversations as soon as warranted leads to much more success and, ironically, makes most people happier in the long run. They don’t worry so much about the poor performers who can’t handle kind and assertive conversations. They kindly escort them out of the company and allow them to find a nice place to settle.

In my work as a strategic adviser to senior executives, I’ve seen far too much nice behavior cause tremendous problems. Avoiding conflict, allowing weak people to impact others, being nice to vendors who don’t deliver, telling board members and senior executives what they want to hear rather than the unvarnished truth — this is not kind behavior. In fact, it destroys value, hampers employment and creates weak performers. Being nice is not kind.

Is your organization nice or kind? Here are some diagnostic questions:

1. Do people speak their minds or hold back because of what others will think?
2. Do weak performers stay employed even though they add no value?
3. If you’re the CEO, do you hear about problems before they’re catastrophes, or is everything just fine until the doo-doo hits the fan?
4. According to your performance reviews, is your company like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average?
5. Have you ever reorganized a department to “work around” an ineffective person?
6. Is healthy conflict not only allowed but also encouraged?

The world is full of nice people, but only kind ones are effective advisors and executives.

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of, Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be(Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email [email protected].

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