"Now is a good time to reimagine leadership. Fortunately, there are signs that successful leaders are those people who have cultivated enduring soft skills. Importantly, they create caring cultures."
Strength in Kind Leadership
When my daughter was 15 years old she had to give a brief speech in front of a congregation as part of a “coming of age” ceremony for the youth group. Josie was a wisp of a girl and she did not like the spotlight, which had always been an odd paradox. She had been a competitive gymnast for 10 years and performed well under pressure. But a church sanctuary is not a gymnasium. And speaking in public can be worse than attempting a back tuck on a balance beam.
I confess as a mother that I forget her talk, but I remember quite well what Mr. Narjarian, the group co-leader, had to say about her. “Don’t let her quiet nature or size deceive you, this young woman could someday lead a small country.” On the way back home she asked, “Why a small country?”
Soft Skills as Essential Skills
It’s always been curious to me, as a psychologist, that we refer to a certain set of qualities and abilities as “soft skills” or “prosocial behaviors.” These tend to include: compassion, collaborative play, cooperation, emotional regulation, kindness, mindfulness, sharing, helping, perspective taking, and impulse control. These prosocial skills and behaviors are associated with positive emotions, such as empathy, love, pride, joy, as well as qualities of presence—calm, cheerful, determined, eager, focused, grateful, funny, friendly, inspired, relatable, thoughtful, warm, and wholehearted. Exactly the qualities most people want to see in strong leaders.
Yet, “soft” is not exactly good for branding in leadership. And we are suffering the consequences of this blind spot. Now is a good time to reimagine leadership. Fortunately, there are signs that successful leaders are those people who have cultivated enduring soft skills. Importantly, they create caring cultures.
Tapping Your Compassion Instinct
Our biological instinct for kindness comes together with our social conditioning to inform how we engage in the world. We have a deep instinct to care. Humans have evolved not just to survive but to thrive. There is a lesser-known aspect of the theory of human evolution: sympathy. Stronger than self-interest or self-protection, sympathy is a reflexive social instinct. It developed from our need to care for vulnerable babies, who require years of nurturing. This made us a super-caregiving species, which—from one generation to the next—rewired and refined our nervous systems. Compassion and kindness are so much a part of the human blueprint that they are “embedded into the folds of our brains,” as the researcher and academic Dacher Keltner puts it. We are wired to care.
How a person expresses this exceptional capacity depends on unique life experiences, because the reality is that aggression and competition are part of our evolutionary legacy too. So is fear. Lucky for us, we can influence our hardwiring. It begins with an awareness of your kind nature, and it is expressed in a commitment to exercise “soft skills.”
Triggering Positive Emotions
One of the biggest challenges in today’s world is stress. Many of us spend the majority of our time working—and the workplace can be a crucible for discontent. Organizational cultures that value performance and outcomes over other human factors result in disengaged employees and low morale. Chronic stress develops when the body doesn’t have time to rest and readjust. You feel worn down physically, mentally, and emotionally. Experts explain that the stress response and its attending negative emotions narrow your focus to immediate action. You can become small-minded and mean without even realizing it, as you snap at people, become overly or undeservedly critical, and in general share your negative outlook.
On the other hand, positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson tells us that positive emotions “broaden and build” your inner resources over time, so they serve you well, especially in hard times. They trigger the body’s self-soothing system, and you feel safer and calmer. You become able to rest, restore, and revise your mindset toward expansiveness, generosity, love, and kindness.
Making Room for What Feels Uncomfortable
But it’s not always easy to maintain an upbeat attitude or feel optimistic when it seems like there is one crisis after the next. We’ve buried our intuitive and natural capacity for connection and caring underneath a superficial but tenacious drive for ratings and rankings. “As we become more obsessed with succeeding, or at least surviving, in that world, we lose touch with our souls and disappear in our roles,” wrote Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.
Part of leadership is learning to develop a “window of tolerance.” This means being able to acknowledge the uncomfortable sensations, emotions and thoughts that arise in response to hyper-competitive and performance-oriented pressure. Rather than avoiding the discomfort, or judging our inner reactions harshly, we allow room for clarity, understanding and self-compassion. We can seek support, too. This allows for the cultivation of resilience in the face of difficulty. It requires having honest conversations with others. Researcher Brené Brown writes in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “To reignite creativity, innovation and learning, leaders must rehumanize education and work.” This require courageous leadership and having a process for engaged feedback.
Trending Toward Kind Leadership
The good news is that a paradigm shift is occurring in organizations that elevate the essentiality of “soft skills” from preschools to Fortune 50 companies. Rasmus Hougaard is the founder of The Potential Project and has culled data that shines a glaring light on a global leadership crisis. In spite of $46 billion that is spent on leadership training annually, there is much suffering in organizations. Only 13% of the global workforce is engaged and 82% of employees think their leaders aren’t doing a good job. In one study, 35% of employees would forgo a pay raise to see a leader fired.
Hougaard has assembled the results of The Mind of the Leader project with Harvard Business Review based on surveys with 35,000 managers and interviews with 250 CEOs from all over the world. The upshot? Leadership development has it backwards. Managers and executives are incessantly drilled in how to drive the bottom line with an intense focus on external factors to the exclusion of other essential skills.
Moreover, people in positions of power tend to interrupt others, fail to clean up after themselves, and ignore the experiences of others. If leaders don’t have ability to manage themselves first, he contends, they are missing an integral quality in leadership. They are missing the prosocial skills described above. Hougaard describes the top 3 key qualities of an impactful leader:
He likens the failure in leadership to building the roof of a house before the foundation. Quoting from one of the CEOs interviewed, Hougaard summarizes the current state of leadership in one line: “Leadership is unlearning management and relearning being a human being.”
I think of my daughter up there on a church podium, so nervous yet earnest. She had already intuitively understood what no business school could teach her about leadership: a presence of heart. The key for Josie, and all of us, is to remember what it means to be a human being—no matter how small or large her country may turn out to be.
Tara Cousineau, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, meditation teacher, well-being researcher, and social entrepreneur. She has received numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovative Research program and is affiliated with the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance in Somerville, MA. Learn more about her book, THE KINDNESS CURE (February 2018, New Harbinger Press).
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