Leadership Coaching for CEOs: Successful Executives Are Not Nice!

The following is an excerpt from my book, “Never Kick A Cow Chip On A Hot Day—Real Lessons For Real CEOs And Those Who Want To Be” from Morgan James Publishing. In Chapter One I explore “the seven mantras of successful leadership.” Here is the first—one that I frequently rely upon in my leadership coaching.

Mantra # 1: Successful Executives Are Not 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 eliminating behaviors like hitting, screaming, crying, or anything that makes the other people in the sandbox feel bad.

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!” Nice is a hat hanger, a fall back sort of position when all else fails. But when it comes to the business of leadership, you are going to quickly see that nice isn’t always the best way to carry yourself.

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 even trim our trees, she happily has a meaningful conversation with whoever interrupted dinnertime. Even when she says “no,” she says it nicely and only after a detailed explanation as to why she doesn’t need the trees trimmed or another subscription to a magazine filled mostly with ads.

Practically, there isn’t much harm in this behavior. The worst-case scenario is a nominal loss of time and too many Girl Scout cookies in the pantry. However, when we lead and manage others, being nice isn’t always the most effective approach.

There’s a substantial difference between being nice and being kind. Nice is born out of fear, and kind is born out of love. The fear of not being liked, or fear of conflict, prevents us from speaking the truth. But if we are kind, we will overcome that fear. Most of the time, you are willing to tell someone you love that they are making a big mistake, even at the risk of offending them or hurting their feelings.

My wife doesn’t want to offend the salesperson, so she sacrifices her time to alleviate any possible rejection on the salesperson’s part. She is just really nice. However, the key resource that salesperson has is time. By being nice, my wife is unintentionally reducing the salesperson’s productivity and in essence, future earnings. My wife’s niceness is robbing the guy blind.

What my wife doesn’t realize is that spending inordinate amounts of time with people who you’ll eventually tell “no thanks” is not kind. Heck, it might even be pretty mean. Instead, a kind response might be: “I’m not interested and don’t want you to waste your time because I’m not purchasing anything.” It may be blunt, but it the kindest and most effective response.

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 put on some outdated clothes. Their honesty (even if it hurt my feelings in the immediacy) saved me piles of embarrassment over the long haul. And I truly appreciated that honesty. It was not always nice, but it certainly came from the heart, and maybe a strong desire to be seen with a fashionable father.

I also appreciate it when someone tells me I look foolish with a piece of spinach in my teeth, rather than just ignore the situation because they don’t want to embarrass me or seem rude. Sometimes being kind means risking offense.

Now let’s apply 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 your current practices are screwing things up. Nice leaders don’t want anyone to feel bad, but when they stand in the middle of the road, they end up getting hit by traffic going both ways. Not only do they fail to protect people’s feelings, they end up losing a lot more than just the smile on their face.

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

Kind leaders know that leaving weak people on the team means it won’t succeed as quickly or as well. The result will be detrimental to the entire team, and eventually, the leader.

Nice leaders don’t enforce the rules if someone will get upset, because to change behavior would require uncomfortable conversations. They don’t challenge the simple things like tardy behavior, and as a result, work production is weak.

Kind leaders know that pushing people to be better, pointing out weaknesses and strengths, and having difficult conversations as soon as they are needed 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 another place to settle—a nice place. It creates a successful atmosphere for everyone because they know you care, but will not be taken advantage of.

In my work as an adviser to senior executives, I’ve often seen nice behavior cause tremendous problems. Avoiding conflict, allowing weak people to drag others down, being nice to vendors who don’t deliver, and telling board members and senior executives what they want to hear rather than the unvarnished truth are just a few examples of extremely dangerous behaviors. In fact, it destroys value, hampers employment and creates weak performers. In the end, being nice is not kind.

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

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

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