The Surprising and Critical Skill for Leaders

The best leaders embody kindness.  How often are you intentionally kind to the people you lead and interact with?  Here are some reasons to start!

In austere environments like Mt Washington, support and kindness go a long way toward survival.

In austere environments like Mt Washington, support and kindness go a long way toward survival.

I worried about how feasible kindness would be in “real world” where it seems like results matter more than people.


Huddled under a tarp in pouring Alaska rain, friends and fellow prospective instructors make hot cacao and chat.  Thus started one of the best conversations of my expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) last spring.  “This Expedition Behavior concept seems great, but it is also easy to do out here with no other responsibilities or demands on our time.  What do you all think it will look like when we reenter our busy lives in the ‘real world?’”  This idea weighed on me.  Clearly life is great when everyone looks out for each other, but in real life people seem to take advantage of that sort of behavior!  How could a leader incorporate Expedition Behavior without looking weak or becoming ineffective?  After spending 30 days with kind and supportive people, I was ready to make the change.  At the same time I worried about how feasible committing to kindness would be in "real world" where it seems like results matter more than people.

It seems like a straight forward concept- expedition behavior (affectionately referred to as EB at NOLS).  EB is one of the seven core leadership skills taught by NOLS, and it became a centerpiece for our 30 days in the wilderness.  Basically, it means being a person other people want to live with in the wilderness for extended periods of time.  EB often looks like helping others set up their tent, treating everyone’s water when you make your own, boiling extra water for other people’s hot drinks and so on.  In the military, taking care of your people.  In business, extremely good human capital management. 

Lighten the load for the people around you and chances are yours will become easier too.

Lighten the load for the people around you and chances are yours will become easier too.

It was refreshing to live in a community constantly seeking to support each other, but unless you find yourself in the wilderness this sounds like an unreasonable demand.  I can’t imagine volunteering to take extra weight in my pack or treat other people’s water in a board room.  Then again, don’t you want the people around you- your partner, family, coworkers etc.- to want to be around you?  Would that not make leadership much easier, more efficacious, even fun?

NOLS defines EB as: cooperating and actively resolving conflict, supporting teamwork, keeping oneself and others motivated, and getting along with diverse people.  Doing these things would absolutely increase any leader’s effectiveness.  Still, each is a difficult skill that requires practice, reflection and intentional effort to incorporate into your leadership.  Conversely out in the wilderness, while we talked about EB a lot, it boiled down to making acts of service a habit and thinking of other people first.  Without the distractions of the outside world, it became easy to put other people’s needs first and habitually lend a helping hand.    

In our huddle among the hummocks of Alaska, we decided that while EB might look different in the real world, fundamentally it would remain unchanged; be kind!  EB would manifest itself in our lives as both random and intentional acts of kindness.  Take time to acknowledge the beggar on the corner.  Take a moment to write a nice note for your spouse before you punch the time clock.  Pick up an extra coffee for someone you may not know well at work. 

People often imagine strength as the stereotypical decisive and commanding leader, but ironically kindness makes leaders the strongest.  Kindness makes leaders extensions of powerful well-functioning teams.  Kind leaders build relationships, create tight knit teams, and provide meaning and motivation.  These leaders are transformational, connecting with and inspiring others.  They can be commanding and decisinve, and they are so much more!        

Strung out on rope teams, a kind word in passing is worth its weight in gold. 

Strung out on rope teams, a kind word in passing is worth its weight in gold. 

If you read no further, you will be a better leader for paying attention to this.  The little things matter.  Your team will not forget thank you notes, genuine words of appreciation, or a helping hand when things get rough.  In The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, a central concept is that leadership is a relationship.  Being kind makes your leadership a relationship worth having.

Emotional Intelligence has become a staple in leadership literature, spearheaded by Daniel Goleman (Check out Primal Leadership to learn more).  Part of becoming more emotionally intelligent is self-awareness and awareness of others.  A kind leader will naturally be more perceptive of the people around him or her, because kindness cannot coincide with self-centeredness.  Additionally, research points toward contagious emotions due to mirror neurons and other phenomena.  People will cue off your emotions and actions as a leader.  Of course, this makes avoiding negativity important, but modeling kindness will improve your organization dramatically.  Imagine how much more people would like coming to work when they could expect kindness from everyone there.  You and your leaders can make it a priority to be kind, and your culture will follow! 

Knowing people have your back allows you to push harder and higher!

Knowing people have your back allows you to push harder and higher!

People work well in teams when their talents and roles mesh to create something more powerful than a simple group working toward the same goal.  This meshing requires intensive communication and lots of trust.  A culture of kindness reassures team members that others will have their backs, looking out for their best interests.  Without that safety net, common purpose, well defined roles and clear accountability could just as well result in Enron.  Knowing teammates care allows higher effort and motivation.  Kindness is an integral component in a well-functioning team!  It can even make conflict healthy and potentially aggravating interactions positive.

Resolving conflict creates friction.  Often people resort to passive aggressive behavior or avoidance to deal with this discomfort.  Of course this either creates resentment or a poor status quo.  In a kind culture people take on the responsibility of speaking directly and truthfully to others, because they value others.  Your people can expect that others will speak hard truths with kind intentions, making conflict a force for growth.

Interestingly, research by David McClelland indicates that people use different motivation sources.  While many seek achievement for motivation to some degree, countless others need affiliation to stoke their fire.  A kind leader creates an inclusive team- a team that thrives on different backgrounds, perspectives, and strengths.  A group that values others as people rather than a cog in the wheel maximizes what each member brings to the table!  This dynamic allows people to feel included in a powerfully authentic way which for many fosters much higher motivation. 

To be fair, great leadership requires much more than Expedition Behavior.  Without accountability and high expectations, the wheels fall off the bus!  Kindness requires time, patience and hard work.  It seems like a no brainer to include kindness in leadership, but I have often noted even in myself that deadlines, emails, pressure, efficiency etc. tend to overshadow treating people like people.  Never forget that kindness takes intentional effort and time.  Commit to that effort for you team!  Beyond just being a good person, kind leaders set up teams and organizations to maximize effectiveness, inclusion, constructive conflict resolution, and each individual's motivation.  As a leader, can you afford not to be kind?  Try noticing times you show kindness and times you could have been more kind in the coming week.  Perhaps even ask someone to hold you accountable to being kind.  Then watch the positive impact on your team!       

If this resonates with you, share with other leaders and check out the adventures we offer at!  

For more to read check out- 

“How Can I Support You?”

The Leadership Challenge. James Kouzes and Barry Posner. (2007).

Primal Leadership. Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee. (2002).