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February 16, 2023

Leading With Kindness and Humility

Alice Gledhill

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Earlier this week, Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as Scotland's first minister after eight years in the role. Despite "wrestling" with the decision for weeks, she stated that it came down to what was right for herself, her party and her country.

The news comes less than one month after Jacinda Ardern announced that she would step down as PM of New Zealand. In her six years running the country, Ardern was praised for her strong but compassionate leadership style, proving that kindness and humility are assets to any leader.

With these two strong female politicians stepping down, I wanted to reflect on how kindness and humility can help us to become better leaders, and why stepping aside is not a sign of weakness.

What Is Humility?

Humility is the opposite of bragging. It's staying modest about yourself and your status. But don't confuse humility with low self-esteem; it doesn't mean that you're insecure or lack confidence, but rather that you appreciate your talents without being boastful. Leadership expert Bruna Martinuzzi writes about Humility as "a quiet confidence."

When we're less preoccupied with our own accomplishments, we have more time and energy to think about others. Humility is therefore a highly desirable trait in any leader, since it ensures that they will always act in the best interests of their team, rather than for their own personal gain.

Do Female Leaders Show More Humility?

Author of "The Paula Principle," Tom Schuller, finds that men often work above their level of competence, but women are more likely to work below their level of competence. Tomas Charmarro-Premuzic has also written about this, citing that "women are more sensitive, considerate and humble than men."

But everyone can develop kindness and selflessness, and these qualities are even more valuable in leadership roles.

Traits of a Kind Leader

Humility is just one of the key ingredients that make up a kind leader. And with a little practice you too can develop a more compassionate leadership style:

  • Active listening. As a leader, your voice will often carry the most weight in your team. Give others a chance to voice their ideas and pay attention to what they have to say.
  • Empathy. Connect with your team members. Try to understand their feelings and points of view. How does their work affect their wellbeing? And what can you do to help?
  • Self-awareness. What kind of leader are you? What does your team think of you? A self-reflection will help you to stay grounded and understand your motives.
  • Trust and honesty. A kind leader will trust and empower their team. To nurture a culture of trust, you should be honest and authentic with your co-workers. If you set a good example, your team will follow suit!
  • Accountability. As leader, the buck stops with you. Kind leaders demonstrate courage and tenacity by accepting responsibility for their decisions and learning from their mistakes.

A Kind Leader Knows When to Step Aside

Resigning because you don't feel up to the task at hand is commonly seen as a weakness, but it's quite the opposite.

Sturgeon and Ardern's reasons for handing over the prime ministerial baton demonstrate kindness and strength. Not only to themselves, but also to their people. Knowing when you've reached your limit is an admirable trait, and admitting it takes a wealth of courage.

Rather than try to "fake it 'til you make it," a good leader can admit when they aren't the right person for the job. For example, asking for help or delegating to team members with more suitable skillsets. Or, in the case of Jacinda Arden and Nicola Sturgeon, stepping down for the sake of the people they represent.

A kind and humble person won't let their vanity or desire for personal glory stand in the way of their team's success.

Beware of Generosity Burnout!

Leading with kindness and humility can be wearing. Especially in politics! With so many people depending on you to guide them in the right direction, it can be difficult to make both quick and ethical decisions. This pressure, and the constant consideration of others' needs over your own can lead to generosity burnout.

In her resignation speech, Jacinda Ardern admitted that she simply did not "have enough in the tank" to continue in her role. Giving too much too often will inevitably lead to exhaustion and burnout. Generosity burnout can even make you resent those who depend on you, so it's crucial to do something about it before it takes hold.

Avoid generosity burnout as a leader by accepting that you can't always please everyone. Reflect on your personal values and those of your company, and consider how you can apply them in your decision making. This will help you to feel confident about the choices you make, and defend them if you face scrutiny.

Finally, take time for yourself. While you are responsible for your people, you can't help them to be their best selves if you you don't show yourself the same care and attention!

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