“Nice” is a Leadership Competency

Over the last year, I’ve faced a health issue that has been a challenge for me to accept and reconcile. Recently, it resulted in me falling to the ground at my local gym, unconscious. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage and I quickly returned to my normal routine, including my morning work-outs.

One of my fellow gym members, a retiree in his early 70’s named Fred, had been a witness to my collapse, the arrival of paramedics, and me being carried out on a stretcher. Up to that point, he and I had only a few exchanges, mostly polite “how was your weekend” sort of things. When he saw me back at the gym a few days later, he was clearly surprised. Not wanting to be intrusive, Fred said hello and then tentatively circled me a few times before finally asking if I was OK.

Even though we barely know each other, his genuine concern was evident, so I was comfortable giving him the scoop. He was thoughtful and supportive.

Since then, Fred watches me like a hawk.

Daily, he asks how I’m doing and searches my eyes and face to verify that I’m not just placating him. When we’re at separate ends of the gym, he peers over the machines to make sure I’m OK. If I take too long of a break between sets of sit-ups and remain lying on my mat, he casually “happens by.”

Fred has become my unofficial guardian.

Before I tell you what happened today, I’ll provide some background.

Having only known my mother’s wonderful father, I’ve always wished I’d known my other grandparents. This has resulted in my fondness for all senior citizens. And we have plenty of them at my gym – including one who was in the 101st Airborne that landed in Normandy during WWII. The stories these folks can share and the life wisdom they pass on is fascinating, valuable and instructive. And for several of them, their only social circle is the rest of us at the gym. Personally, I just love these people … and when they speak, I listen.

This week, Fred seemed particularly attentive to my conversations with other gym members, yet with a different expression on his face – a mix of protectiveness and disdain.  He had heard me listening to a woman who professed to be a psychic. She was well-intentioned and entertaining. When she walked away, he shook his head at me and whispered, “Now you’ll never get rid of her!” I smiled.

Yesterday, he saw me helping someone who was unsure of how to use a machine. He rolled his eyes and wagged his finger at me. I grinned back. This was getting fun.

Today, he observed me talking to a retired Silicon Valley executive who has leadership stories and insights on life that are both smart and hilarious.

When that conversation wrapped up, I looked over at Fred, who shot me a look of defeat and grumbled, “You’re too nice … it won’t pay off.” Apparently, his life’s experiences had put his guard up.

I replied with, “Life is much more pleasant when we’re kind to each other, so why be grumpy?”

Fred waved me over. In a gravelly voice, he whispered, “Being nice just doesn’t pay off. The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.”

By now, you know that Fred is a bit of a curmudgeon. But that’s just on the surface; below that, he’s kind and warm and caring. Why else would he show such concern for me?

As I stood there and looked at him, it struck me that I owe much of my success in Corporate America, and now as a consultant and entrepreneur, to those who have been nice to me. I’ve been fortunate to have managers, mentors and colleagues who were inclusive, caring and genuinely interested in people. They invested in relationships not as a means to an end, but because they were kind and willing to support others along their paths. Their own leadership was replete with a genuine curiosity of others and a desire to exchange knowledge and experience for development, but also to create an enjoyable work environment.

You don’t show up like that if you aren’t nice. And we can’t show up as compelling, trustworthy leaders if we don’t realize that being nice is a core competency.

I’ve learned so much from this simple truth and it’s made me a better person and a more successful professional.

How has this translated to success in business?

I certainly have to be very good at my job to sustain a small business for over 10 years, but I also have to operate in a way that makes people want to work with me.

I’ve built a rewarding consultancy with long-term clients and a strong pipeline of future work without any formal advertising, marketing or business development.

Every client I have (and have ever had) has come through referrals via former colleagues, or existing and past clients.

When I ask these referred clients why they chose to reach out to me, the answer is almost always something along the lines of: I was told you’re really good at what you do … and you’re nice, you really care.

A recently acquired client said he was referred to me because his boss knew he needed someone who would cut through the BS, tell him what he needed to know, but always leave his dignity intact. My nickname while at Wrigley was “the velvet hammer” and I took that as a wonderful compliment.

So I shared this with Fred. Being nice has directly contributed to my every accomplishment. And I suggested that his vigilant concern for me was, perhaps, his own way of being nice.

He looked somewhat skeptical, yet also acquiesced with the slightest of grins … before returning to the eye rolling.

I patted him on the back and couldn’t resist singing that iconic, 60’s era Coca-Cola jingle as I walked away:

“I’d like to build the world a home, and keep it company. Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves …”

Naïve? Nope. This is what the world needs right now: Leaders capable of being tough and focused on the big picture, able to deliver results, while also being nice and honoring each person’s humanity. It’s an essential competency for all of us, regardless of role or hierarchy.

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