Leading with Kindness: Nice to Have or Necessity?

In an Agile environment, you don’t have to be nice. But you should always be kind.

Leaders should be: [Fill in the blank.] 

Depending on whether you’re a traditionalist, boomer, Gen X, millennial, or Gen Z, you probably have very different perspectives on what leadership looks like and how leaders should act. In recent years, leading with kindness is starting to take a front seat. 

“By now, many leaders have realized that when it comes to business, nice guys often finish first. Old-fashioned images of corporate callousness and greed have been replaced by a gentler, more human conception of great leadership,” according to William F. Baker and Michael O’Malley, authors of Leading with Kindness: How Good People Consistently Get Superior Results.

One perspective we can all agree on when it comes to defining leadership: “A leader is someone others choose to follow.”  If nobody is following you, you are not a leader.  The characteristics of effective leaders are the same traits we seek when choosing who to follow.

Put people first
While kindness isn’t explicitly mentioned in Agile values, it is implicit in the first which states: We value individuals and interactions over processes and tools.  Essentially it says, we put people first. We adapt our practices and our processes to meet the needs of our people, not the other way round. 

Being kind starts with empathy and caring about others.  We want our employees to care about our goals, our customers, our profit margins. If we want them to care, then we as leaders must genuinely care about their wellbeing, paths, and goals.  You would only choose to follow someone you believe genuinely cares about you — your wellbeing, concerns, and success.

Putting people first allows them to perform at their best. It allows them to care. Otherwise, what we’re saying is: “I give you money, therefore you must care.” That’s not what happens. You give me money to do a job. You don’t pay me to care. People can’t be a headcount in a spreadsheet. People are individuals — with a name and a belly button.

Take every interaction with a positive intent
If somebody screwed up or made a bad decision, it’s not because they intended to do it. If we assume positive intent in the actions and decisions of the people we lead then our focus becomes not about blame and consequences, but rather about growth, learning and improvement.  One characteristic that all effective leaders share is the recognition that “Everything is my fault!” We are always accountable for all of it. This admission allows us to have conversations about how to grow better together — how to make better decisions and take better actions.

If someone is not succeeding, it’s our role as leaders to provide the support mechanisms and structures, or create environments where they will be more successful. Leading with kindness means that we, as leaders, need to find ways to make the environment and the person more successful. When we fail to do so, it’s on us, not on them. We want to create a culture that celebrates small failures so as to avoid the large ones.


Leading with kindness is caring. If we care, we need to assume people are acting with good intentions.


When we talk about kind leadership, we’re modeling the behaviors of the people we want around us. We want our team to be open, transparent, and honest, be courageous, and treat other—s with respect. It starts with us.

Kind leaders don’t try to be ‘nice’

Being ‘kind’ is not the same as being ‘nice’. Being ‘nice’ is not required — being respectful is.  It’s about always letting people know where you stand with them. Being ‘nice’ is often disingenuous.  It sometimes hides our true intentions.   If someone’s trying to be nice, they may censor themselves and not be honest. Maybe it’s to avoid conflict, to be liked, or ingratiate themselves. Being nice can often mask a bunch of other motives. 

If we care about the people we interact with, we will begin to prioritize their needs above our own.. Acting with kindness means acting in a way that benefits the other person even if it doesn’t directly benefit you.  It’s about giving before asking  and never taking. 

Being kind in challenging situations means you empathize, listen, and understand. You don’t do it to be nice, likable, or it’s your job. You do it because you genuinely care.

Kind leaders are forward looking
Kind leaders ask, “How do we do it better next time?” What’s done is done. There’s nothing we can do about it. If we are as truly accountable as leaders then punishing someone for a mistake they made would be misdirected.  If somebody’s not the right fit and doesn’t work well within the team, firing them is the right thing to do. But it’s not done for retribution but rather out of kindness to that person and the rest of the team.  If you’re kind, you genuinely want that person to do well, even if it’s not at your company. And you’ll probably do what you can to give them a soft landing and help them find a better opportunity.


Being right doesn’t matter
People are overly consumed with being right or proving themselves right. Success matters. Achieving the goal matters. Saying “I told you so” is irrelevant.


It takes courage to be a kind and effective leader
Not everything works out the way we want it to. To provide openness, feedback and clear direction means we’re exposing ourselves to potentially failing. Fear of failure isn’t unreasonable. The courage to face that fear is what makes someone a good leader. 

A leader is someone you choose to follow
Kindness is a characteristic people want to follow. If your team knows you care about them, their success, and what happens to them, that means they can trust you. If they can trust you, they can collaborate with you. They won’t be afraid to fail because they know you won’t throw them under the bus. You’ll protect and shield them. If all this is true, they are more likely to follow you. These are all attributes of kindness in leadership. 

In order to be kind, we have to care.