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Do "Nice" Leaders Finish Last?

By Diane Bock

Diane BockYou’re a leader. Do you ever think about how people will describe your legacy?  What do you hope they will say about you? Decisive? Brilliant? Globally astute? Innovative? Nice?

Um, wait, nice? Does anyone pick that?

Is nice boring and nothing to aspire to? Is nice only meant for those who are made of sugar and spice and under the age of nine? But hang on….I’d like my friends, doctor, flight attendant, and tax preparation specialist to be nice. And I’d really like my manager to be nice (he is, whew!). But I can’t remember reading about how a CEO attained that position by being nice. Professionally speaking, is it hazardous to your career as a leader to be nice?

Nice bosses finish lastAuthor Greg McKeown wrote about the perils of having a nice boss. His research uncovered a type of “nice” manager who was full of praise for others and never said a disagreeable word to anyone. But this kind of manager also kept a low profile and never challenged the status quo, earning a reputation for being submissive and weak. The careers of direct reports suffered, not having a courageous leader or champion. While the press about the trauma of having a nasty boss is legion, here’s a strike against the nice boss. At least this kind of nice. The obsequious milquetoasty kind of nice. Okay, ew. I don’t want my boss or any other people in my life to be like THAT! But is all niceness to be shunned or hidden if one is to be successful as a leader?

In his book, Give and Take, Adam Grant tells a story of an executive who was very giving of her time and expertise, to coach and aid the careers of others. But she spent years keeping her niceness on the down low. Even though her largesse brought positive benefits to her organization, she felt her own career aspirations would not be served if she were labeled as nurturing or nice. Until recently.

The executive described in Give and Take stopped hiding and came out as a giving leader (pretty darn nice) who champions talent and builds organizational capability. What encouraged her to do that? Perhaps it was because those she helped replicated her behaviors to pay it forward for the benefit of others.

Wow—lots of people helping each other professionally so that they can all make stronger contributions to their organizations. This form of niceness squarely addresses the most critical challenge organizations have today, according to 2014 research by The Conference Board. In that study, over 1,000 CEOs named their number-one, most-critical challenge to be the availability and readiness of human capital. So it turns out that helping others to grow and develop isn’t just nice, it’s brilliant!

Could niceness, or some better, more specific word for that, be about to make a comeback in a big way?

Let me tell you about my friend Nate (not his real name). People, including me, describe Nate as a nice guy. And, he is one of the most effective people leaders I know. In every interaction, he treats people with respect and humanity. He listens, he shares his own foibles to empathize with and inspire others, and he offers support to overcome barriers and spark good performance. And, in case you are wondering, he’s had some pretty challenging characters to manage. So staying true to these “nice” behaviors is no cake walk.

Nate recently told me a story that illustrates both the perceived liabilities and definite advantages of being nice. One day Nate’s curmudgeonly boss praised his work and results, but then chided him by saying, “but you’re too nice.” Nate, not being any kind of a pushover said, “Really? Do you have any examples where I have not held people accountable to meet goals? Can you think of an instance where I failed to address performance problems? Have you ever observed a time where I shied away from challenging our thinking and correcting problems?” His boss answered no, no, and no. Nate knew that his “nice” approach to leading people was the very secret sauce that drove the strong achievements of his group. And he owned it. Nate’s boss had a little trouble saying Nate was TOO nice after that.

I really don’t know if Nate’s boss ever got it, but I get it. You do too, right? It’s possible to be nice without being a wimp. And tiptoeing around people and issues to avoid conflict or to be everyone’s most agreeable best friend isn’t really nice. If you have a direct report who is not performing well, is it nice to let it slide until conditions get much worse—reaching the point where the only option is to fire him or her? Is it nice to let small process issues fester until they become big problems that damage the organization? Nope and nope. When Nate is “nice,” he is achieving goals through his generosity of spirit and ability to handle a wide variety of tough, complicated human issues in a way that preserves the dignity of others and brings out their best. That kind of nice gets results. Leaders who get results finish first. And to avoid the misperceptions that come with using such a fuzzy, unspecific word as nice, let’s just use a better word. How about EFFECTIVE.

Effective leaders use interpersonal skills that might be called “nice” or “soft.” But these skills take courage and discipline, and they help to address hard issues. Leaders have opportunities to apply these skills in every single conversation or interaction they have, so the impact can be immediate and powerful. Nice! Read our article on exactly what these essential skills are and what the impact could be for your business.

Diane Bock is a senior consultant for DDI’s Leadership Solutions Group and is passionate about helping organizations drive business results through people.

Posted: 04 Jun, 2014,
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