Feb. 6, 2023

First Principles February: What Is Kind Leadership? (Challenge #53)

First Principles February: What Is Kind Leadership? (Challenge #53)

Greetings Kind Leaders and welcome to First Principles February! A little over a year ago, on February 1, 2022, I launched the kind leadership challenge podcast. To mark this anniversary month, we’re going back to the first principles of Kind Leadership in a four part mini-course that will teach you how you can impement the kind leadership framework to build a better world. And we're kicking off with the most common question I get when I talk about this show:

"What is Kind Leadership?"

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This episode was produced by Podcast Boutique .


Greetings Kind Leaders and welcome to First Principles February! A little over a year ago, on February 1, 2022, I launched the kind leadership challenge podcast. To mark this anniversary month, we’re going back to the first principles of Kind Leadership in a four part mini-course. Over the month of February, you’ll learn, what is kind leadership? How can kind leadership turn your doubts into confidence? How can you transform a dysfunctional organization into an well-oiled machine? And what’s the secret to growing a drama-infested workplace into a trusting, psychologically safe team that can handle anything fate throws at them? Stay tuned throughout February, as I take you through this special introduction to the core principles of Kind Leadership: Growing Humanely, Managing Effectively, and Creating Collaboratively.


Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge, the podcast that empowers principled educational and library leaders to heal their organizations! I’m Dr. Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild, where I use my PhD in Higher ed leadership and nearly 2 decades of experience in academic libraries to coach leaders like you who want to build a better world without burning out. 

Kind Leaders aren’t perfect, and we don’t need to be. We strive to make tough decisions without becoming jerks. We design systems that enable our teams to make a big impact without overworking. And we know that once we stop controlling and start collaborating, even the most ambitious vision can become effortless. Kind Leadership is pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So if you’re up for a challenge, stick around for the next 10 minutes as I teach you how your school or library can create a resilient, thriving legacy that will strengthen your community long after you’re gone.


Welcome to the first part of this four week series on the first principles of kind leadership. Today we’re going to start at the very beginning. What is kind leadership? 

Actually, let’s start a step before that. Because in order to understand what kind leadership is and why it has the power to turn the most toxic situation into a harmonious workplace, you need to understand what I mean when I say leadership, and what I mean when I say kindness.

Let’s start with what I think is the easier word to understand and define—possibly because I have a PhD in it. Leadership. I’ve studied a lot of the great theorists like James McGregor Burns and Lee Bolman. I’ve also read folks many of you have actually heard of, like Brene Brown, Michael Bungay Stanier, and Adam Grant. For me, most of these writers really seem the most interested in how people make decisions with the goal of improving their organizations in one another—little decisions like how to speak up in a meeting, or big decisions like building next year’s budget. I’ve also seen the same phenomenon in my own leadership practice—I can theorize and strategize to my heart’s content about what might make our library a stronger asset to the university we serve. However, none of that woolgathering makes a difference till the team and I make a decision to implement those theories and strategies in the real world. Then, we see what happens and make the next decision based on what we learned. And for that reason, I define leadership as “making decisions that you believe will improve your organization.” 

Got it? Good. Because that was the easy one. Kindness is a bit trickier. In my earlier days doing workshops, I would occasionally get snark from drive-by social media commenters that kindness is the opposite of leadership, because kindness gets you walked over. Now, I understand where the source of the confusion, because in the hard-charging, capitalist, individualist society that most of you listening to this live in, it is easy to conflate kindness, niceness, and weakness. However, kindness, as I define it, is ANYTHING but weak. And it’s not always particularly nice either. 

To define kindness, we need to go back to the tail end of the definition of leadership—the bit that talks about improving your organization. We’re going to narrow down that a bit further. Most folks listening to this are educational or library leaders, so our organizations’ goal is usually to help create a more educated or informed world through the work we do. There are two basic ways I’ve seen my colleagues approach this goal. They boil down to trying to rescue the people we lead, serve, or who are in charge of us from the immediate pain or challenge we face, versus taking actions that might help heal those folks so they can meet those challenges and strengthen their communities for the long haul. Rescuing ourselves and others is easy, and pleasant in the short term, and nice. Healing ourselves and others, on the other hand, is usually hard, often unpleasant in the short term, but for me it is the essence of kindness.  

A lot of rescuer types wind up in mission-driven organizations like schools and libraries, and I fully admit most of my personal and professional missteps come back to a deep-seated urge to save or fix people. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s ultimately unsustainable and destructive. When you rescue someone, whether it’s from a feeling of ignorance or the consequences of their actions, they don’t learn anything. They don’t grow. They don’t get better. And they may well resent you for charging in and taking away their autonomy. And there’s a more insidious effect of rescuing. Because you haven’t helped people heal and grow, they’ll keep coming to you to solve their problems. And because you get a short term dopamine fix from being the hero, you rescue them again, and again, and again. In the best case scenario, you’ll eventually learn better. But in the worst case scenario, you’ll end up burnt out and bitter.  

However, when you put the long term benefits of healing a situation and helping the people involved to grow over rescuing those folks with quick fixes that don’t help anyone, magic happens. However, those of you familiar with one of my favorite books and movies The Neverending Story, may recall the phrase “It has to hurt if it’s to heal.”  Healing an organization can be painful, or unpopular. You may have to cut a sacred cow from the budget, or terminate a beloved team member, or implement a controversial strategy. And you may be distrusted for a while, or even worse. But the people who care about making your organization better will get on board. They’ll come to trust you enough to both support you when they think you’re right, and have honest, constructive debate when they think you’re going astray. You will all heal. You will all grow, and you will all build a better world.  

So, let’s put it all together. 

Kindness is the practice of healing ourselves and our communities so we can grow into the best versions of ourselves. 

Leadership is making decisions that you believe will improve your organization. 

And that means Kind Leadership is the skill of making decisions that you believe will heal yourself, your organization, and the world that you serve. 

What are those decisions, what do they need to heal, and how can I tell if they work? We’ll get into that next week when I introduce you to the first thing you need to heal. Yourself. And I’ll teach you how to become a kind leader to yourself by practicing the first of the three skills of kind leadership—growing humanely.  

Between now and next Monday, here’s you challenge. I’d like you to keep a list of the notable decisions you make over the course of the week and why you need them. Then, on Friday, or over the weekend, take a look at the list, and ask yourself—which choices came from an urge to rescue, and which came from a desire to heal? Don’t change anything, just notice and reflect. And keep that list handy for next week.


Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. Do you know someone who needs to hear this week’s challenge? If so, open your app or head over to kindleadershipchallenge.com/53 and share this episode with them right now. Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.  

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