I remember listening to the actor Ricky Tomlinson on the radio many years ago. His father, he said, was loved by all who knew him, and he lived by a simple principle: It is better to be kind, than to be right.
That phrase has stayed with me over the years, but is it true?
We don’t appear to be living in very kind times. Reality TV is often extremely cruel, built on humiliating those taking part, and encouraging less than admirable behaviour in viewers who are asked to vote on someone’s worthiness or attractiveness. But their popularity suggests there is something in human nature that enjoys the spectacle of defeat – comparisons to the Roman amphitheatres aren’t new of course, but there does seem to be a thread tying the two together. And I’m not exempting myself from blame here, I watch as many of those shows as the next person.
We are deeply tribal as a species, as the whole Brexit debate has so painfully highlighted. Is cruelty and selfishness simply the more dominant part of our nature? Are we never as happy as when we are beating others? If that is so, why do we get such pleasure from small acts of kindness – giving gifts, helping someone in trouble, even simply making them a cup of tea? And why do people give away large sums of often hard-earned money to people they have never met, and may never meet?
As with so much in life, I suspect the answer is a complex mix, and there are professionals from all disciplines from theology to physics who could (and do) contribute to our understanding of it. Cruelty and kindness exist together in all of us, but we can choose which one should be our guiding principle. For my part, I agree with Ricky’s Dad, but that needs unpacking a little further as to what kindness means to me.
In working with Senior Leadership teams and individuals, we will often discuss how they can get the outcome they really want, if they are willing to give up the need to be seen to be right, and to “win”. I have sat in countless meetings where all parties could have walked away with exactly what they wanted, but their need to be publicly seen to be correct got in the way. I have often seen that the need to be “right” holds you back as a leader – you can’t bring people with you if you are only focused on yourself.
Kindness should be seen as an antidote to this. We all know being kind makes us, and everyone around us, feel better. So why don’t we use it more often? Probably because it can also make us a little vulnerable – what if someone takes advantage?
Well kindness isn’t about being a doormat, and letting everyone else do exactly what they want. That’s not kind to them or you. If someone is bad at their job, and needs to move on and do something else, it’s not kind to let them stay in a job they can’t do. It’s not kind not to tell a leadership team that they have made a collective mistake, and that the thing they wanted to do can’t be achieved. As consultants, we have often had to tell very painful truths, but it has always resulted in people being, ultimately, grateful for our honesty. That, I think, is because we weren’t telling them a painful truth to be seen to be right. Indeed often, I wish we didn’t have to tell them what they don’t want to hear! When a message has to be given, it is your duty to do it in the kindest way possible. To let people hear the news without hitting them in the face with it, laying out a clear path for what they do next.
So, kindness can be, and usually is, very challenging. It takes thought, and often fear. We know this in our private lives – it’s not kind to let a child eat what they wish at all times, or to let a partner take a path you know will make them unhappy, or to let a dog bark all night. The path to helping often means a difficult series of conversations, and some very hard work to change habits and behaviours.
But you can and should do all of this with kindness, and without needing to win. If we could all get out of our own way, listen a bit more and speak a bit less, we could live in a better and richer place.
Susie and I will be talking about how to bring this kindness into effective fundraising practice at the CASE conference in August this year. We’d love to hear your views, and we will share them with the audience.
Shaun Horan is Joint CEO of Halpin.