When it comes to books on leadership, Leading with Kindness is about as generic as it gets. Two leadership educators interviewed a bunch of leaders (with a slight bias to banking and investment) and aggregated their leadership experiences. A good, efficient and ”kind” leader sets expectations, sticks to the truth and focuses on mutual gain and growth. Baker and O’Malley then simply define this set of features and behaviors as “kindness”.
The funny thing is, Dale Carnegie wrote pretty much the same in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People – in 1936.
I found Leading with kindness very confusing. Books I read are never short of lists, but this one takes the cake. Baker and O’Malley start simply enough with three traits of kind leadership, that get their own chapter each. Every single chapter, however, meanders off into increasingly nested sub-lists that form sub-chapters, with several additional bullet point lists. And in-between the confusing list-within-list structure, some leaders offer their own three or so steps to leadership success. I had problems to keep track of which list-level the passage I was reading belonged to.
The authors try to adopt an entertaining, positive tone, but only succeed to make Leading with Kindness both riddled with stilted language and dry as bone and at the same time. The following description of a non-kind leader should give you the impression:
“Other leaders pander to their audience’s proclivities and vulnerabilities through seductive claims and promises, nuggets of praise and money, and the pursuit of transcendent causes without themselves ever feeling connected or part of a relationship. These leaders attempt to gain favor and get what they want by delivering diversionary pleasures and ethereal satisfaction in place of a genuine life.”
I’m not sure what diversionary pleasures and ethereal satisfaction are, but I think I want some?
Leading with Kindness uses some of the worst metaphors for leadership I have ever seen. Ostensibly, great leaders are like fountains. Or like art. Not like artists, just like art itself. Baker and O’Malley spend several pages of their book to compare good, “kind” leaders to “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, the famous Dada artist. Fountain was a piece of “found art”, an ordinary object declared to be art by an artist. In particular, it was a urinal, it was signed with a fake name (R. Mutt), and it was displayed lying on the back, prohibiting its intended use as a receptacle for pee. And true leaders are somehow exactly like that. Or maybe like pole vaulters.
Beside the lack of exciting content, the confusing chapter structure and the stressed analogies, Leading with Kindness leaves the impression of sucking up to the interviewed leaders.
When introducing the managers (the authors frequently call them ”their” leaders), we don’t just learn that John Smith is CEO at Smith and Partners, Inc.. For some reason, the authors found it necessary to search the dictionary for increasingly obscure adjectives of praise.
That way we get the “analytical” Robert Rubin the “unpretentious” Michael Cherkasky, the “charming and self-effacing“ Jay Ireland. We have the “supercharged” Rick Goings, who later makes a comeback as “indefatigable” Rick Goings, followed by the “socially conscious” Pete Peterson, the “motivational” Robert Lane and the “scholarly“ Michael Critelli.
But the trophy for most bizarre qualifier goes to “…bona fide good guy Richard Smucker (the current co-CEO of Smucker’s and a fourth generation Smucker)…”.
Bona fide good guy. It would be slightly less ridiculous if Baker and O’Malley had bothered to prepare some hard evidence for the presumed kindness of “their” leaders, and the link to the success of their companies. Instead, the authors give a platform for executives (every single one allegedly a seasoned public speaker and experienced mass manipulator) to peddle their leadership wisdom (“The three Ps for leadership success”, and many more), unchallenged and without question. The truth is, if a company is super successful, it is probably not the direct effect of a CEO’s “kindness”, but the result of two dozen factors. And if you want to evaluate someone’s leadership style, don’t ask that person. Everybody can say nice things about him- or herself. Ask the people led by that person.
Oh, Baker and O’Malley are also clearly trying to start a cult. Leading with Kindness gets all-out biblical when presenting the benefits of the proposed “kind” leadership style, and we all are expected to sing along the praise. And like other books of scripture, we get allegories and archetypes, but zero guidance to implement anything into our own workplace. It’s open to interpretation.
In conclusion, if you want a scholarly gospel on kind leadership, this is for you. If you actually want instructions to become a kind leader, get another book.
- Being humane and sensible as a leader (“kind”) pays off for everyone in the long run.
William F. Baker is a TV broadcasting executive, and media professor at Fordham University. He runs a (seemingly long defunct) blog. I have no idea what Michael O’Malley is doing now. While writing the book, both authors were involved with leadership education.
Amacom Books (13. August 2008)