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March 2017
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The Public Manager

The Jeep Wave and Other Acts of Kindness

What does driving a Jeep Wrangler have to do with becoming a better leader?

Jeep Wrangler drivers around the country participate in a time-honored ritual referred to as the "Jeep Wave." Urban Dictionary defines this tradition as "an honor bestowed upon those drivers with the superior intelligence, taste, class, and discomfort tolerance (exception to '97 and newer Jeep owners) to own the ultimate vehicle—the Jeep. Generally, it consists of either a raised hand waving or four fingers extended upward from the steering wheel, but may be modified to suit circumstances and locally accepted etiquette."

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The most pleasing thing about the Jeep Wave is that no matter what my day is like, I can always count on friendly greetings from my fellow Jeepers. It's a genuine demonstration of kindness. It's inspiring and comforting—two feelings whose power I fear our leaders often underestimate.

Kindness is the ultimate soft skill. As such, it is often discounted in favor of more metric-based, analytic tools. Who hasn't seen soft skills referred to with the requisite air quotes, coupled with a wry smirk? Many even confuse kindness with weakness. How sad. For it is kindness, simple and unpretentious, that offers leaders an extraordinary way to influence and inspire.

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Being kind does not come easy. A hyperactive world, less time for friends and family, and a 24-hour news cycle leave little room for reflection, much less acts of kindness. Some scientists suggest that we have an inherent bias toward negativity. From an evolutionary perspective, this has served us well by keeping us focused on important survival skills and honing our competitive edge. Humans have no time to be kind because it places us in a position of vulnerability in a competitive world. But there are ways to edge toward a more gracious and kind manner:

  • Start with humility in mind. Jim Collins's book Good to Great suggests that one of the most common traits of successful leaders is simple humility. When authentic, humility is the great equalizer, opening up opportunities for kindness and communication.
  • Assume noble intent. Kindness begins when we are able to give others the benefit of the doubt. No matter the circumstance you find yourself in, ask first what you can learn. This is more likely to fuel humble questioning, as opposed to indiscriminant judgment.
  • Respect the power of touch and voice. Human touch is an intimate and loving gesture that sends messages far beyond the spoken word. When used appropriately, touch can both soothe and encourage. Likewise, a measured voice, free of insolent tone, can send convincing messages of care and reassurance.
  • Kindness begets kindness. Acts of kindness generate a synergy that can make the workplace more sensitive and engaged. Even if one is not on the receiving or giving end of kindness, simply witnessing such acts can go a long way in sending a positive message that resonates throughout the organization.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Revamping our thinking to position ourselves to perform acts of kindness takes time and practice. It requires unlearning old habits (such as interrupting or poor listening) and building new, more constructive ones.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that we are often surprised by kindness. When we hear a story of or witness an act of kindness, we often react with disbelief, followed by admiration. Then we tell someone about it, usually beginning with the words "Guess what I saw?" As human beings we may be hardwired for survival, but we're also hardwired for belonging. We long for the connectedness and love that is so uniquely human.
The Dalai Lama once said "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible." As leaders, it is our moral imperative to create environments where kindness abounds. And for those air quoting "soft skills" as they read, consider this—quantitative and qualitative research alike show a positive link between engaging, positive work environments and organizational success. A simple act of kindness, like a Jeep Wave, may be all that you need to get the ball rolling.

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About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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