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Do Nice Leaders Really Finish Last?

Anyone else cringe when they hear the phrase, “Nice guys finish last”?

The old trope comes from the idea that being nice means letting people walk all over you—and as a result, you never get what you want.

Often, the phrase is used as an excuse for people to act like jerks. After all, who doesn’t want the people they interact with—be it their boss, their doctor, their flight attendant, or their friends—to be nice?

But there’s a kernel of truth in the idea, especially when it comes to leadership. I can't remember ever reading about how a CEO attained their position by being nice. Professionally speaking, is it hazardous to your career as a leader to be nice?

Author 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 from 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, milquetoast-y 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 the book 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 The Conference Board, which polls more than 1,000 CEOs annually and finds that among their most-critical challenges is the availability and readiness of human capital. And our own research shows that listening and responding with empathy is the single most important leadership skill. 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 it—be about to make a comeback in a big way?

To learn more, read my article on nice leaders: https://www.ddiworld.com/blog/tmi/october-2018/do-nice-leaders-finish-last.

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