By Arun Kumar
Jacinda Ardern’s resignation caught the world by surprise. She had led her country with both courage and compassion through the challenges of Covid and the trauma of the Christchurch shootings. She was an authentic voice of sanity during troubled times.
Her farewell comments were remarkable on account of her calling out the importance of kindness and empathy alongside strength and decisiveness:
“For my part, I want to finish with a simple thank you to New Zealanders for giving me this opportunity to serve… I hope in return I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused.”
She had remarked earlier that she had been criticised for not being “aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”
Kindness and empathy are important
The place of kindness and empathy in leadership has not received the attention it deserves.
These qualities were only recently tested for all of us, as rarely before, when we faced an unprecedented pandemic. In the organisation that I then led, we decided we would reduce the stress on our employees and their families by making clear, right at the outset of the pandemic, that we would not lay anyone off as we navigated the pandemic. This was a weighty decision as our employee population ran in the tens of thousands. We would all take home less money, but our people would keep their jobs.
Every night, unfailingly, a crisis team led by our chief operating officer would track the health of our population, ensuring that assistance was provided to find oxygen, beds and treatment for our afflicted people and their families. Our head of administration, a celebrated war veteran, brought an enormous commitment to our people’s safety. Self-organising volunteer teams supplemented and assisted the crisis team. And when we lost people as inevitably and tragically happened, we mourned with the families and helped them in the best ways we could. The crisis brought out the kindness and empathy of our people up and down the organisation.
The two years of remote working brought about the stresses of balancing the demands of work and home. This was particularly hard in India on families where not just children (who were not going to school physically) but often also parents and extended families had to be attended to – even as people were called on to work longer hours than before. Studies have shown that mental health declined among many workers during the pandemic.
Now that the pandemic is significantly behind us in most parts of the world, it would be valuable to continue to nurture the qualities of kindness and empathy that the pandemic often brought to the fore.
What are the elements of kindness in an organisational context?
Leaders must listen, carefully, to provide support to their people. One must encourage questions, any questions. While listening, be sensitive to signs of distress and promptly offer help. The pandemic may be gone, but employees will face stressful situations and the lessons of listening and responding supportively should stay with us.
More broadly, organisations should strive to create an environment of safety and of trust. While striving for higher performance inevitably calls for challenge, such stretching is not antithetical to employees feeling safe and trusting their organisations. Trust, in turn, calls for transparency of intent and consistency of actions.
Indeed, kindness means that leaders must not intimidate or be judgmental. Getting angry and losing one’s temper should be anathema. The impulse to judge and react must be countered by self-confidence and calmness that is genuine and informed – and a willingness to help.
Kindness is meaningful when relationships are real. Through the most severe portions of the pandemic, I spoke every day with six to ten people who I did not previously know, often meeting their families online. I felt the warmth of my interlocutors and I hope they sensed my concern. Even in a large organisation, it is important that people know at a personal level that their leaders are there for them, and genuinely care for them.
Jacinda Ardern mentions optimism – which in turn engenders positivity. In my previous organisation, we used a Hindi word to capture and tap into the innate positivity of our people – “josh.” A joshful team cannot but be upbeat and optimistic.
Kindness, as Ardern has asserted, is not weakness. On the contrary, kindness takes confidence and commitment – to see the goodness in others, to empower them, to celebrate their successes and foster their growth.
(The author is managing partner at Celesta Capital and former chairman and CEO, KPMG India. Views expressed are personal.)