In the HBR article “Are successful people nice?” Art Markman suggests emotional intelligence implies that successful leaders should be nice. And while being nice may have social benefits, he asks does it really pay?
Art argues that the real key to success lies not in how nice a leader is but how agreeable they are; (1) the extent to which they value getting along with others, and (2) the degree to which they are willing to be critical of others. In my experience there is truth in this argument and the extent to which someone is able to balance these two factors will impact their effectiveness in leading people.
At a more fundamental level however I believe issue lies in our definitions of success and what it is to be ‘nice’. For the purpose of his article, Art defines success narrowly as relating to the financial and hierarchical status of leaders. However, in my experience just because someone is promoted up through the ranks doesn’t mean they are successful leaders. It is an all too common reality that people are promoted because of their technical competence and not because of their ability to inspire and lead others to succeed.
With that said, I will focus my comments here on the definition of nice. One online dictionary defines nice as “pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory, pleasant in manner; good-natured, kind”. Even in this one published definition the problem is illustrated; i.e. there is a big difference between being agreeable and kind and yet both are used to describe ‘nice’.
Sometimes as the old expression suggests, leaders need to “be cruel to be kind”. I have written previously that (Tough Loves Powerful Truth), it is unfair and unkind to allow someone to fail without trying to help them. To guide people to overcome challenges we often need to help them to understand the role they are playing and what they need to do differently to succeed. Even the most confronting feedback brings with it the opportunity to understand the truth and take ownership for changing our reality.
To me ‘nice’ is crucial and relates not to what is or isn’t done but how leaders go about it. Put simply, successful leaders do what they need to do, including the tough stuff; they just do it nicely. In other words they tackle issues head on, overcoming the urge of avoidance and in doing so treat people with respect and decency. Successful leaders understand their responsibilities to find the courage it takes to deal with tough issues but never lose sight of the need to act with compassion and sensitivity. You can be brutally honest with someone, be non negotiable in the strength of your feedback and expectations, without being a bully, nasty or unkind in your approach. It doesn’t matter how tough things get there is no excuse or need for leaders not to be nice.
At the end of the day sometimes the ‘nicest’ or kindest thing a leader can do is be honest despite the risk of creating discomfort or upset. Great leadership is not about avoiding discomfort for you or others – it’s about inspiring and supporting people to be the best possible version of themselves. It can be entirely ‘nice’ to put up the mirror of truth and help someone confront their reality so they can grow.