First Posted April 25, 2006.
The Gentle, Kind Leader
Leadership is a very personal, dynamic phenomenon.
It is personal because it is involves not only personal character, but also collaborative relationships.
Excellent leaders are able to create an environment where social trust opens up the ability for the team or the organization to communicate, strategize and work together toward common goals.
In Jonathan Shay's book, Achilles in Vietnam, he writes about Patroklos, the friend and fellow-warrior of Achilles. Here is what Shay says of Patroklos.
A veteran in our program has written: Gentle people who somehow survive the brutality of war are highly prized in a combat unit. they have the aura of priests, even though many of them were highly efficient killers. The Iliad makes clear that Patroklos had precisely this kind of gentle character. It was in no way incompatible with being a formidable warrior ... We learn about Patroklos's gentleness and compassion from our own observation and the reports of others. ...
Homer asks us to believe that gentleness and compassion really were Patroklos's leading character traits, equal to his fighting prowess against the enemy. If we fail to perceive this, we will be unable to comprehend the pain at his death. ...
Time and again Homer makes very sure that we understand that gentleness and kindness were Patroklos's leading traits of character by bringing testimony to it from every conceivable quarter: gods, concubines, soldiers under his command, soldiers of higher rank unrelated to him, horses, and even the enemy themselves.
After a lengthy description of Patroklos's gentleness, Shay shifts to Vietnam veterans.
The Vietnam veterans who lost gentle comrades did not start out as monsters of cruelty they became in their beserk states. Philia was reciprocal, as evoked in the veteran's words quoted above, "You'd take a s***, and he'd be right there covering you. And if I take a s***, he'd be covering me. ... We needed each other to survive." Our culture insists upon the gender association of nurturance and compassion as maternal, whereas the ancient Greek culture understood philia to be equally available to both genders. Another veteran described his role in explicitly maternal terms: I became the mother hen. You know, "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, get over here, get over here, Stay down. All right, now, now, everyone keep, y'know, y'know - the s*** hits the fan, hit the f***ing ground, don't worry about nothing, just say down now." It was constant now. I was watching the other five guys like they was my children.
Veterans often speak of the gentle side of themselves as having died with the special comrade with whom they experienced mutual and reciprocal maternal love.
The purpose of these lengthy quotes is to demonstrate that this observation by Shay is not just an aside, but a critical insight in his book.
I don't know how many times I have had people speak to me about people who are angry and explosive in the workplace. Some leaders do feel that yelling and screaming is an appropriate leadership tactic. I think of R. Lee Ermey's Marine D.I. in Full Metal Jacket as the classic angry leader. Other people may not have a violent temper, but they lack the kind of people skills that come with being a gentle, kind leader. A May FastCompany article on the Alpha Exec is another example. (HT: Brad Respess)
What this suggests to me is that every leader is a combination of strengths and weaknesses, and many them begin at the intersection of psychology and character. I know this sounds obvious. But what is often obvious is also not well understood. It is the nature of character in leaders that is not understood well.
When I read Shay's description of Patroklos (see above) I see two fundamental character traits. Courage and kindness. This isn't the courage that makes it possible to bungee jump off the New River Bridge on Bridge Day. This is the kind of courage that is sacrificial. The kind that earns not admiration for being fearless, but trust for the willingness to put one's life on the life of another. Courage gets discussed because it is cool and fits with our prevailing culture of physical extremes in pursuit of the new great adrenaline rush.
The Kindness character question is hardly every discussed. It is alluded to from time to time. For example, Michael Yon, a free-lance journalist and blogger who has been in and out of the toughest battle fronts of the war on terror has a story written by Army sergeant Tim Boggs who is stationed in Iraq. Here's his complete report. (Go to the site to see some accompanying pictures.)
My name is Tim Boggs and I am a sergeant in the Army. I’m serving on my second deployment to Iraq. When I reflect on my experiences in my first deployment, one particular story sticks out above the rest.
I was stationed in southern Iraq near the port of Umm Qasr. I was in a quartermaster unit and our job was to support camp operations. We purified water, supplied fuel, and did what we could to help improve the quality of life for soldiers there. Our camp was set up in the middle of the desert, inside an old dump, a few minutes away from Umm Qasr. At the front gate of our camp a sign said, “Welcome to Hell” and after living on the base for just a few days I would say the sign was quite accurate. We were pretty much in the middle of the desert with no shade and no amenities. During the summer the temperature was excruciatingly hot, sometimes reaching upward of 140 degrees.
After I had been there a few weeks, I noticed that several Iraqi families had moved into tents right next to ours. It wasn’t long before some of the people in my unit began to interact with the families. We soon found out why they were living by us. One of the families had helped the military and was living there in fear of reprisals from anti-American forces. Another family, a mother and her three small children, were living there to escape their abusive husband and father. Several of the soldiers including myself became particularly fond of the kids in this family. We started hanging out with the oldest two kids, both boys, who were about six and three years-old.
The youngest was a small girl, probably no older than about a year and a half. They were beautiful children and they melted the hearts of many of the soldiers on base.
In the beginning, none of them spoke English so we were unable to communicate, but as anyone who has been in a foreign land can tell you there are ways around language barriers. We often played games with them or let them watch television with us. We would give them snacks and make sure they had enough food and water.
The longer they stayed at our base the more they became a staple in our lives. The oldest kid learned English rapidly, albeit English taught by a bunch of soldiers. The other two, for obvious reasons, were unable to talk to us but caught on quickly as we taught them basic words. Instead, their older brother did all the communicating for them and he amazed us all with his ability to play the role of the father for his siblings. He was a handsome kid with a zest for life despite his circumstances. He could brighten up anyone’s day with his smile and often reminded us why exactly we were halfway across the world, fighting in a foreign land.
The two younger kids were as equally charming as their older brother. The three-year-old boy loved playing video games with us and would come knocking on my door begging to be allowed to just watch us play. The little girl, as did most cute children, held a soft spot in all of the soldier’s hearts. Without communicating, she reaffirmed my belief that we as American soldiers were not only in Iraq to free an entire nation from an evil tyrant but also to help the Iraqi people lead a better life, which for me meant befriending a family who had fallen victim to abuse. She was a tangible example of how we were making a difference despite our unglamorous jobs.
Their mother appreciated that we played with her kids and watched them for her from time to time. She even became quite good friends with some of the women in my unit. The oldest kid would go to the chow hall each day for lunch and dinner and bring back food for his brother, sister, and mother. Everyone at the camp knew them to some capacity but because we stayed only 50 feet away from them, we treated them as family. There were times when I would fall asleep in my cot with the one year-old girl close by. Other times, the oldest kid would come get me at night when their power went out and he wanted me to fix it. We were their family, and they knew it.
I remember the first night the oldest boy came and got me to fix the power in their tent. I couldn’t really understand exactly what he was asking for but after he grabbed me by the arm and led me to his room I saw that all of their power was out. After tracing their power cord to the same generator used by the post office on base I realized that I would have to go wake up the officer in charge of the mailroom. After a half an hour searching for him, I finally located him and he agreed to let me in the mailroom. The officer and I then went to the mailroom and all I had to do was flip the breaker to the power that led to the family’s tent. When I did so, the oldest boy thanked me and we both went back to his area. His mother thanked me as best she could and I returned to my tent. I shook off the funny feeling that I was becoming a dad to these kids. I guess there is something about being summoned to fix things around the house so kids can sleep that made me feel oddly like a father.
After several months of living in a tent, we were able to move the family into one of the buildings on our small camp. The powers that be at the base found a bed for them and some small amenities, like a television and toiletries. The rest of the stuff they needed was supplied by the friends and family back home of one woman in my unit. We spent a lot of time with the family and began to teach the mother English. She seemed very appreciative. We treated them exactly like we would our own family and cared deeply about them. A few other soldiers at the camp tried hard to get them permission to come to the states but, due to circumstances beyond their control, they weren’t successful. However, by the time we were due to leave Iraq we learned that they had located a relative in a nearby town with whom they could stay, and they were going to move in around the same time we were leaving.
All in all, we spent a good ten months with the family. We were sad to leave them but grateful for the experience of not only helping them out but also having the opportunity to form a relationship that crossed over cultural boundaries, during a time of war. We could see the good changes that we knew we were bringing to these people that greatly needed and appreciated our help. I will be forever thankful for the experience and I hope that one day the kids will grow up to appreciate American soldiers and all that they did for their country. I honestly feel like the kids in Iraq will be our greatest asset in years to come.
All soldiers I know have a heart for the kids in Iraq and for the suffering they have gone through. Many of our greatest efforts have gone toward helping them live a better life, whether it is rebuilding their schools, giving them toys and candy, getting them proper medical attention, or simply playing games with them. My hope for Iraq lies in the next generation. Through the efforts of some amazing soldiers, I believe a seed has been planted that will one day bloom into a mass of young children raised on knowing the kindness and gentleness of American soldiers. When that time comes I believe we will finally enjoy the fruits of our labor in the Middle East.
What is the impact that a kind, gentle, courageous leader can have upon an organization? What happens in a combat situation or a crisis in a business when the leadership keeps their cool, rallies the team to a unified, cohesive focused effort? You not only find a way to get through, but you preserve the emotional and moral integrity of both the individuals and the group.
What else can we say about this?
First and foremost, is the trust factor.
Kindness and gentleness are actions that are exhibited in relationship with others. It is not the same thing as being shy or aloof. It is not the same thing as being a wallflower. Kindness and gentleness are active expressions of an inner character that is not determined by personality, but by choice. Choice is where character is lived out.
Second, kindness and gentleness are outward focused, rather than inward focused.
How many angry people do you know whose constant monologue is about how they are a victim of other people's action. Angry people, I find, have a difficult time owning their own place in the anger equation. A leader who understands his or her responsibility for their decisions and actions, also understands that living out that responsibility is where character gets tested. In essence, we have two choices to make. We can either blame others for our misery or not, and we can contend that others are responsible for actions to make me happy. Happiness, gentleness, kindness, courage are choices we make. We can't transfer that responsibility to someone else, whether it is our spouse, parents, boss, elected officials or the President.
Third, as the character of the leader has its effect upon those who are lead, the character of the business also grows.
With that character is able to become more flexible, less liable to be distracted by stress, temporary setbacks or changes in the competitive environment.
Fourth, kindness and gentleness are social characteristics.
You can't be kind by yourself. Kindness is visited upon someone. Therefore the leader's relations with others matter. Reading Shay also presented a perspective that helped me to see the relationship between Meriwether Lewis and William Clark differently. There was a companionship between them that exceeded the traditional military comradeship. They were very different men, yet they had a strong affection for one another. One of the secrets of the Lewis & Clark Expedition's success is the relationship between them. These are not meek, passive nerds. These are heroic frontiersmen whose relationship can be characterized as kind and gentle. This is certainly true of William Clark whose affection for the young child of Sacagewea and Toussaint Charbonneau, Jean-Baptiste, extended to his taking him into his household in St. Louis and providing him an education.
Lastly, to be kind and gentle allows for a more realistic expectation for the performance of people.
It enables the leader to look at his or her staff as people who require a broad range of support methods to enable them to develop within their various job roles. When people believe that you have their best interests in mind, then they will perform beyond what is expected because they want to please you. You can't take advantage of that reciprocal kindness. As my mother used to say, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."
If trauma is a real condition of organizational life, then organizations need gentle, kind leaders who also have a fierce drive for achievement. These are traits that will make the healing of an organization possible.