The Shepherd or the Wolf
The shared characteristics of Kind Leaders, and why you should "Be More Tree".
DALL·E Prompt: A photo of a shepherd and a wolf. Include a tree in the background.
Over the last three years, I've worked with over 30 organisations and thousands of people. Kindness has helped us all deal with the uncertain times of a pandemic and is helping now as we are dealing with a volatile world, an uncertain economy, and increasing pressures to return to the office and work in ways that don't suit us well. When times are tough, we need all the support we can get at work. Kindness does that.
Along with this practical experience, the work of the Kindness Corporation is also to lead in thinking through a research-, data-, and insight-led approach to putting kindness to work. We've invested more energy, time, and money in kindness at work than anybody else.
All, so we can “Be More Tree.”
You’ll see in a bit.
Our latest work has been to explore, test, and define the shared beliefs, values, qualities, and behaviours of Kind Leaders — people at all levels who lead at work through the power of #WorkKind. We've created a learning programme for how you can: Work better, live more. #WorkKind. Message me if you'd like to know more.
Every piece of data we've examined, every piece of research we've conducted, and our practical experience working with leaders have taught us that these beliefs, values, qualities, and behaviours are shared by all Kind Leaders. They may not have defined them all to themselves, but they exist — the data shows that these beliefs, values, characteristics, and behaviours are always present, individual by individual.
Before we get into shepherds, wolves, and why you should “Be More Tree,” let's leave you with three definitions:
Kindness: A commitment in thought, word, and action to leave everyone and everything better.
Leader: A leader is anyone at any level who sees how people or the workplace can be better and does something about it.
Kind Leader: Anyone at any level who brings kindness into the way they work in order to make things better. Anyone, who is committed to: Work better, live more. #Workind
Let's begin with a story, a fable, if you will.
Once upon a time, a wolf had been prowling around a flock of sheep for a while. The shepherd was wary because he knew that wolves were wicked and would carry off a lamb as soon as his back was turned. But night after night the wolf was there and nothing happened. So the shepherd became used to the wolf being there and was no longer troubled.
One day, he had to run an errand and left his flock in the care of the wolf. After all, this wolf would see off others intent on eating his flock.
When the shepherd returned, he was distraught to see that most of his flock had been killed and carried off by the wolf. The sheep that were left were badly maimed and traumatised.
The moral of this fable by Aesop?
Never trust a wolf.
Once a sheep killer, always a sheep killer. It’s who they are.
Some leaders are wolves, and some are shepherds
Driven, strong, fearless, tireless, the lone wolf — many a leader has modelled their leadership style on these attributes. And they've been celebrated for it. From Henry Ford to Elon Musk, the idea of the charismatic leader runs deep through business thinking and popular culture.
The idea of the shepherd appears consistently in all religious and spiritual thought, and for good reasons:
The relationship between a shepherd and sheep is built on trust
Sheep know that the shepherd will look after their wellbeing and safety
The shepherd ensures that the sheep are in the best environment for them to thrive
The shepherd has tough job to do but at the core is kind-hearted
What kind of leader do you want to be or work with?
The sheep-killing wolf or the kind-hearted shepherd?
Kind Leaders are shepherds, not wolves.
So, let’s look at six of their shared characteristics.
Kind Leaders Leave Everyone and Everything Better
Too many of us are stuck in ways of working that no longer work. Command and control, hierarchy, and the idea of work as a machine that can be measured, optimised and tinkered with. Easy when you think of your employees as: headcount, staff, roles, FTEs, or any other way of dehumanising actual, real, living people. But these old ways work simply don't cut it with a workforce that is more aware, more conscious, and wants more meaning from their work.
Let's be clear, folks: despite the efforts of many large organisations to get us back into the office, there's no “going back” pre-COVID or “levelling up” from where we were. Work is fundamentally changing, and we need to become more fully aware of the impact of the way we work and how it is impacting ourselves, the people we work with, the communities in which we live, work, and serve, and the only planet we get to call home. Leaders take note: more and more people are becoming aware of their impact and the impact (or not) of the organisations they work for. And just because you can't see it happening where you work doesn't mean it isn't.
Work is changing, and it is way past time that leaders change how they work.
A growing number of leaders are. They are shifting their mindset to fully acknowledge that work is, first and foremost, a human thing. Focusing on whether people work physically, remotely, or hybrid is secondary to how they work.
How we work is what shapes our human experience when we’re working.
How people work and work together are the ultimate predictors of organisational success, stability and growth.
How organisations take their work into the world determines how well their brand will thrive today and into the future.
A popular definition of insanity (usually attributed to Einstein) is “doing the same thing and expecting different results.”
For people and organisations to thrive, we need to work in different ways and get different results.
So, let's reimagine work.
Let's look at a meaningful new way to meet the world and measure success.
Simply put, kindness improves people's lives, and when we are better (happier, healthier physically and mentally, more satisfied), we are happier and more productive at work. We build trust. We collaborate more fluidly and effectively. When we are better at work, everything about work, including the outcomes we create, gets better too.
Kindness has never historically been associated with work. It’s simply not a word we hear talked about much at work. Maybe that explains why, historically, kindness has lacked meaning and relevance in the context of work.
While we're reimagining work, why not redefine kindness too? What does it mean for you? If you're unclear or coming up short, why not consider this definition:
Kindness is a commitment in thought, word, and action to leave everyone and everything better.
How can we go wrong if we start right there? By adding intention to guide our actions and decisions, we will create workplaces where people thrive and do their best-ever work. And who doesn’t want that?
That is why Kind Leaders share this definition of work: to leave everyone and everything better.
This definition of kindness is as simple as it is binary.
Anything (yes, anything) you do at work can be viewed through this lens of kindness.
Your next Town Hall meeting — how is it going to go deep and talk about the concerns and hopes that people have? Giving them the opportunity to speak up, be heard, and make a meaningful contribution?
You’re doing a deal — how can both of you walk away from the table satisfied?
You need to reorganise and a significant number of people are going to lose their jobs. However, they will have to stay on over the next six months while they work out their notice, and the business needs them to keep delivering the numbers. How do you make those six months one of the most positive experiences of their career? This, by the way, is a real example of how we are supporting an organisation and the people who work there in off-boarding, a much better way to look at it than “firing,” “making redundant,” or “laying off.”
Kind Leaders at all levels are redefining work right now. Are you one of them, and if not, are you going to join them?
Kind Leaders are Self-Aware
Back in 2014, three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Scilla Elworthy shared that when the 75 members of Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Advisory Council were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was nearly unanimous: Self Awareness.
A study of over 5,000 people led researcher Tasha Eurich to the conclusion that we can think of self-awareness in two ways: internal and external. Internal self-awareness is about knowing yourself, being present, and not making stuff up about what’s going on or what might happen. External self-awareness is all about empathy — about truly understanding how others see us.
Leading a more human organisation starts with self-awareness: being present with what is in one's body, feelings, mind, and in the world.
I was once in an alpha, hormonally charged meeting (something that is actually all too familiar for too many folks), and things were going pear-shaped. The conversation was getting more heated, and it looked like the meeting was going to fall apart in blame and recriminations. So, I stood up, held out my arms, palms pointing forward, and quietly said, “Stop.”
To a man (yep, no women in this BIG meeting), the Alpha Tech Bros all looked at me like I was insane.
I pressed on.
“Do we seriously think we are all going to get to a better place by bringing our egos even more firmly into this room?”
Confused looks. After all, wasn’t it their ego that helped get them into the room for the BIG meeting?
But I persisted. Standing there with palms open, that was my invitation for them to put their egos to one side and become more self-aware. I asked them to close their eyes, take slow, deep breaths, and focus on their in- and out-breaths.
And, like dominoes, they fell. Closing their eyes, slowing their breathing. Until everyone was. After a few minutes, we returned to our discussion. Tempers cooled and minds opened.
That day, we left everyone and everything better when we walked out of the meeting. It was a Kind Meeting. Just like every meeting can be.
Kind Leaders Know They Work in Living Systems
We need to Be More Tree.
“In the past, the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first.” Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 1909.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Taylor wrote this well over a century ago — this view of organisations as machines has dominated management thinking ever since. Machines perform best when they are optimised and it is the job of managers to optimise and run an efficient and productive machine. So we need hierarchies, business units, silos, metrics, blah, blah, blah.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
We need to stop thinking of companies as machines.
And start thinking of where we work as living systems — networks of relationships and ecosystems of collaboration.
Trees share minerals and nutrients through an underground network of mycelium (fungi), which has been called the “Woodwide Web.” Not only do trees share resources, but trees that are being attacked by bugs will send signals through this network, enabling well-established “mother trees” to send them the nutrients they need to help protect themselves. Trees live for hundreds and thousands of years. The average lifespan of a company is now just 15 years.
When we focus our company cultures on our people, when we communicate, share and lift each other up; we thrive.
We need to Be More Tree.
Being a Kind Leader is About Character, Not Reputation
Ask yourself this: How important are likes, fans, followers, shares, and retweets to the people who have or have had the most influence in your life?
That school teacher who “got you” and helped where others didn't, couldn't, or wouldn't? — Alfie Knott, Roan School for Boys, Blackheath, London
The person who wrote the book, lecture you attended, or programme you watched that had you on the edge of your seat, perhaps shouting in anger at the injustice of it all, resolved to do something about it. — David Attenborough, “Climate Change - The Facts”
The person who regularly inspires you? — Alasdair Field
The sons or daughters who teach you as much as you teach them? — Alice Wood and Olivia Wood
Influence isn't about the social constructs created by megalithic technology companies, who call us “users.”
Influence isn't about people who are being paid by brands to make us want things we don't really need.
Back in the day before smartphones and social media, the people who had the most influence on us were the people we knew, either personally or through their ideas, their insights, their personality, their words, their songs, their stories — everything they did that we valued because it somehow made the world a better place.
The people who influence us most and who make the world a better place are people of good character.
Character that is positive, well-intentioned, and consistent — a whole bundle of mental and moral characteristics that add rather than take away.
These people — leaders at all levels — commit to the personal development work to develop and strengthen their character. Their character is built over time, as is their influence.
Contrast this with people chasing fame, fans, and followers. People who obsess over what people think of them, how many people are thinking of them, and how many more people could be thinking of them.
In the movie “The King's Man,” Orlando, the Duke of Oxford's son, shows his father the white feather one of the villagers has given him as a badge of cowardice because he hasn't enlisted for The Great War. Orlando is desperate to enlist, but his father has forbidden him. While consoling his son, the Duke replies:
“Reputation is what people think of you. Character is what you are.”
Kind Leaders know this.
Kind Leaders know that if they want to be a positive influence, they need to work on their character. Day after day after day.
Kind Leaders Have a Growth Mindset, Are Life-Long Learners Determined to Be High-Calibre
When left alone, everything decays.
Without work, everything that is ordered goes into disorder.
Joints become stiffer.
Weeds overtake gardens.
Relationships fall apart.
This natural order of things falling apart is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is a foundational concept of science and a fundamental law of the universe.
So, let's cheer ourselves up with the First Law of Thermodynamics, another fundamental law that states energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be changed from one form to another.
My thoughts, which you are reading here now, are a form of energy. It's a transfer of energy between you and me.
A clear message that I hope you will heed:
Unless you commit to growth and life-long learning in the areas of life that are important to you, they will decay and fall apart. It's as true for your work as it is for your relationships, as it is for your health, and anything else that matters.
Kind Leaders aren't always the smartest people in the room. But they certainly make sure that they get themselves in the smartest rooms.
Kind Leaders commit to growth, and they know this develops their capabilities: day after day, never ceasing, always taking in ideas, information, insights, experiences, etc., anything that enriches their capabilities as leaders.
Capabilities lead to calibre. The more capable you are as a leader, the higher calibre you are.
And to get capable — learn. Prevent entropy and transfer that energy from others who have gone before you, then apply it to your life and work. By doing so, you will not only lead better, you will be an example to others, who will learn from you.
Most of us don't work in life-or-death situations. General James Mattis commanded forces in the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. He's not a man who has any truck with entropy.
“If you haven't read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren't broad enough to sustain you.”
Functionally illiterate. Nobody wants to be that.
Kind Leaders Commit to Consistent Practice that Builds Positive Habits
Showing up every day.
Every day, Kind Leaders show up kind.
Kind Leaders commit in thought, word, and action to leave everyone and everything better.
So, that's what they do. In every conversation, meeting, decision, and more, they are consistent in thinking win-win and wanting to leave everyone and everything better.
Every day, Kind Leaders get to see the impacts of kindness, and this positive reinforcement encourages them to make it a habit — something they do without thinking because they instinctively know that it works.
The consistent practice of kindness “hard wires” us to build the habit of kindness, so that showing up kind every day becomes who we are, not just what we do.
During the COVID pandemic in the UK, this expression captured the hearts of the population:
“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
Be a Kind Leader.
Lessons on Kind Leadership From Philosophers, Academics and Spiderman
My view on what makes leaders human, visionary, and inspiring was created from decades of corporate experience. I’ve learnt to become a leader the hard way — through trial and error, getting things wrong, then learning from my mistakes. I’m human and far from perfect. That said, I have a very clear view of what great leadership looks like.
I’m not alone in this; for centuries, people have thought, researched, debated, and written about leadership. I looked to the ancient philosophers, most notably the Stoics, who considered the virtues of great leaders such as courage, temperance, dignity, and humility. A core insight is that great leaders focus on what is under their control and don't bother with what isn't. That includes things like how we respond to situations, the emotions we choose to dwell on, the judgments we make consciously or subconsciously, our creativity, our decisions, our determination, and our actions.
The definition of kindness — to leave everyone and everything better — started life as the first and foremost of the five yamas (restraints) described in the Yoga Sutra, which asks us to live in such a way that we cause no harm in thought, speech, or action to any living being, including ourselves.
Reading Steven Covey’s classic 7 Habits of Highly Successful People back in the day taught me that life is a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. “Think Win-Win” is his fourth successful habit, which also contributed to the definition of kindness.
When I dug into the research to consider what makes a leader truly great, the natural place to start was Good to Great by Jim Collins. Over a 5-year research period, Jim and his teams examined the performance of 1,435 companies and whittled them down to 11, which they determined were truly “great.” These companies shared many things in common, not the least of which was the nature of their leaders, whom Jim describes as “Level 5 Leaders,” the peak of leadership:
“Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They're incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organisation and its purpose, not themselves.”
I looked at the work of Fred Khiel in his deep research into what makes a successful leader, Return on Character, which showed that companies who have CEOs with a good character outperform “self-focused CEOs” by FIVE TIMES. Fred talks about leaders having four moral principles: integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion. How many leaders do you know who lead this way? In his findings, Fred goes on to share the worst practices of leaders: treating people as objects, putting up barriers, and spinning the truth.
The work of John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, also inspired:
“It’s important to remember that in business, everything we accomplish is ultimately done with and through other people. That is what Conscious Leaders do — we inspire, motivate, develop, and lead others.”
Regenerative Leadership by Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm is full of lessons for leaders who are focused on the thriveability of the people and the organisations they lead:
“Regenerative Business enriches life. It enriches ourselves, our customers, and the wider stakeholder ecosystem. Regenerative Business transforms our role and purpose, from a “what’s-in-it-for-me” approach to a mindset of collaboration, co-creativity and contribution. Regenerative Leaders bring vitality and wellbeing to all our living systems...In-so-doing, we wake up to what it really means to be fully human.”
Being fully human.
That's who we want to be at work. Our authentic, imperfect, human selves.
Not bits of who we are, with our human parts censored because we’re worried about what people might think of us in a work environment.
When people hold back, their work is held back.
Ultimately, leadership is about responsibility, not power. Peter Parker (aka Superman) knew this when he said,
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
This sense of responsibility for people, for decisions, actions, and outcomes, was known only too well by President Harry S. Truman, who had on his desk a sign that read, “The buck stops here.” a lesson that a more orange president should have heeded.
This is our opportunity to reimagine work, to reflect on our experiences, and to design what we want work to be like now and in the future.
So, who will you choose to be?
Shepherd or wolf?
Will you choose to be a Kind Leader?
This is the first in a series of articles examining the beliefs, values, characteristics, and behaviours shared by all Kind Leaders. It is based on the largest workplace kindness data set as well as experience working with thousands of leaders in over thirty companies. If you'd like to know more now, then simply message me.
It's a really simple yet powerful practice this week.
One that will help you "Be More Tree".
In your next session where you are working with a group of people on a project, ask this simple question:
“How can we collaborate more effectively to get somewhere better?”
Maybe kick things off with an idea, but don't force it on people.
And then agree on what you're going to do about it.
Be the Kind Leader in the room or on the call.
Let me know how you get on.
Work better, live more. #WorkKind
This is the Why for this newsletter. A happy day for me is one in which I hear your stories of how you #WorkKind. So hit reply or message me with your ideas, experiences, and stories.
Check out the #WorkKind Community.
Follow my stories, ideas, and practices to help you thrive on the socials that suit you.
And, most importantly, be kind to yourself today.
See you next Wednesday.
Great insights and stories Magnus. Thank you! You write "Kind Leaders aren't always the smartest people in the room"... which made reflect that to be kind is be wise and to be wise is preferable to be being smart ! Really appreciate your hard work promoting kindness which is so needed.