Smack Dab in the Middle of Life – Nice Leaders Lost

On the drive in I will sometimes listen to county music. One song I love hearing is Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw. The song is a great reminder of who I try to be as a leader and what I want my kids to grow up being valued for. Humble and Kind is synonymous for being nice.

Last week we lost two exceptionally talented American business leaders: Herb Kelleher (87)and Blake Nordstrom (58). Kelleher was my mentor, although we never met, I knew all about him. He was the North Star for me on how to lead and build a culture that transforms through its people. I didn’t know Blake Nordstrom at all, except through his influence as it showed up as the Nordstrom customer experience. As I read the tributes to him, I discovered he was a huge loss to leadership in his own right. Twenty-nine years separated these two iconic leaders who were connected in so many ways albeit different businesses and personalities. They were disruptors, innovators, beloved by their people.

And they were nice. Almost all the tributes to them said so. And, what struck me most:  it appears that niceness doesn’t have to be a characteristic that requires the sacrifice of leadership standards.

Neither leader pawned effectiveness or excellence for niceness. They sure seemed humble and kind.

Neither leader pawned effectiveness or excellence for niceness.

No leader is loved by all, all the time. And we all know from first-hand experience, the public persona doesn’t always match the private one. But from what I can tell, these two leaders were true to themselves at home and at work. This is where their legacy of authenticity shines brightest. 

Niceness Lost. Why? 

In business, being a nice leader many times is equated to being weak or a push over. We have become a society of now that has negatively impacted our own leadership behaviors. Now numbers, now results, now new products, now peak performance, now now now. Lightning-fast technology, the 24-hour news cycle, the internet that doesn’t sleep, and countless other things that move at the speed of light that screams nowNow governs our lives, has pressurized us to ungodly stress levels to perform, and has challenged our niceness. If you are not feeling that pressure, I guarantee you are working next to someone who is.

Can we still be nice leaders, despite business and life pressures to produce and perform at ever-escalating standards? Can we be nice when we are relentlessly under attack from our competition or, at times, our own organizations? Can we still be nice, be all about the people, and run our business successfully? When we compete amongst one another can we still be humane, yet a fierce competitor? These two men showed that nice is possible while winning and losing in business. 

Iconic Brands

In their respective businesses, Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom are leaders of the pack. Both have loyal followings. Kelleher and other founding leaders at Southwest built their brand from scratch. The Nordstroms have been great shepherds of their brand that started as a shoe store back in the early 1900’s. Both have survived and thrived in challenging economic times. Their brands became iconic because of excellence in leadership, innovation, customer centricity, and mostly by the quality of their people. All those things go hand and hand. 

The Pleasant Ending

In a Forbes article about Kelleher’s leadership, Kevin and Jackie Freiberg wrote twenty reasons why Kelleher was one of the most beloved leaders of our time. They are all different ways of describing how nice shows up as a leadership style. Go through the list and ask yourself which one of those traits you can do – or already do — as a leader:

1.     Be Interested

2.     Be Approachable

3.     Look Beyond Title And Status

4.     Hire For Attitude, Train For Skill

5.     Put Employees First, Customers Second

6.     Jettison Tribalism And Office Politics

7.     Be Yourself. Allow People To Be Themselves

8.     Be Trustworthy

9.     Leave Your Ego At The Door

10.  Be Irreverent

11.  Be Tough But Not Mean

12.  Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

13.  Spend Time On What You Value

14.  Cultivate A Warrior Spirit

15.  Forget Strategic Planning

16.  Manage In The Good Times To Protect The Company In The Bad Times

17.  Be Decisive, Move With Speed And Agility

18.  Culture Is The Boss

19.  Define The Business As A Cause

20.  Herb’s Golden Rule: It’s Okay To Break The Rules

Does anything on that list scream that you need an advanced degree to build skill as a beloved and effective leader? Sure, great leaders need business savvy and other essential skills to be successful. This list is part of that savviness and what separates the good leaders from greatness.

Do you aspire for greatness through being arrogant, dismissive, deceptive or callous? Or, is being a wildly successful leader who happens to be nice, good enough? Are you a beloved leader like the Kellehers or Nordstroms of the world? If not, why not? And what can you do about it? You don’t need to look too far to get your answers. If you are nice leader that does not mean you are weak. It may mean you are part of a very elite class of leaders.

God speed Herb Kelleher and Blake Nordstrom. It would have been really nice to have met you.

Onward and Up!

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