By Eddie Pipkin

Kindness is not the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the pathway to corporate success.  Cutthroat competition and a “succeed or die” mentality produce cultures known less for empathy and more for manipulation, strong arm tactics, and fighting your way to the top.  A recent article from Fast Company flipped that script, arguing that kindness is not only a virtue, but good policy for a thriving business.  And while the business of ministry would seem to obviously identify kindness as one of its prominent core values, this article got me to wondering just how different churches are from corporations?  Sure, we talk the talk of kindness, but are we just offering lip service, or do we walk that walk: do we truly lead with kindness?  Is kindness a core part of our strategy for success?

The article from Fast Company, by Sara Sabin, was headlined, “Kindness can get you ahead: Take the counterintuitive approach to business success,” to which church leaders would reply, “Well, duh!”  It is an attribute that made it onto the official list of Christian core values, after all, if you want to consider the Fruit of the Spirit as a vision statement for leadership (along with its fellow attributes, love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control).

The devil is, as they say, in the details –a phrase which probably evolved from an original version which celebrated how God is (and should be) in the details of all creation – “God is in the details” – but the “devil” version acknowledges the more cynical rendition of our grasp to fulfill God’s vision of faithfulness. There is perhaps a big gap between the words we would use to describe our leadership approach and the experiences of the people we are leading.  We roll out of bed in the morning determined to be known for our spirit of kindness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control as we command our assigned ship, but by mid-afternoon we might too often find ourselves running aground on the shoals of pettiness, impatience, and harsh words.

Of course, the traditional corporate management manual isn’t beholden to the doctrine of love as its guiding principle.  RESULTS are the name of the game.  If some eggs need to be broken in pursuit of the perfect omelet, oh well.  But that’s not the way ministry is supposed to work.  Business, on the other hand, that’s another story.

Sabin offers this analysis:

In the corporate world, “kindness” is generally not a prized soft skill. The perception of success is often confirmed by examples of authoritarian leadership in the workplace. We see successful and top-ranking leaders who got to where they are through office politics, stepping over competition, blaming their mistakes on others and taking credit for others’ ideas. In other words, they are those who shout the loudest. [Bold emphasis added.]

Hmmmmm.  Surely such behaviors are limited to corporate boardrooms and never rear their Machiavellian heads in church leadership spaces.  I jest.  Of course, these same “worldly” strategies for getting RESULTS seep into our organizations.  If it’s too painful to recall the ways we personally fall into these behavior patterns, it’s easy enough to think of examples of other leaders who have caused us to cringe while we watched them lead in this manner.

Sabin’s point, however, is that not only is kindness a great strategy for being a human being, it’s a great strategy for business.  Leading with kindness (and by association, with those other Fruit of the Spirit) is a solid path to RESULTS, without all the collateral damage, and with the bonus of sustainability and long-term health for organizations and the people who inhabit them.

She came to this conclusion from her own experiences, rising through the corporate ranks and then leading her own start-ups.  She had been convinced of the truth that to be an effective, RESULTS-oriented leader meant being “someone who told people what to do (because they knew best); someone who shouted when expectations weren’t met; someone who was uncooperative and aggressive; and someone who pushed and hustled.  My perception was that the most self-confident and difficult people achieved things.”  Eventual dissatisfaction and burnout led her to a different path: the path of kindness in which she discovered a set of unexpected benefits.  These bullet-pointed concepts are direct quotes from her article – the ministry-oriented commentary about each is from me:

  • “Doing the right thing is good for business.”

In building lasting customer relationships, making decisions for the greater good makes business stronger.  They gain a favorable reputation in their community for treating people right (both customers and employees), and such a reputation is invaluable.  For ministry professionals, treating people right (with fairness, with mercy, with a commitment to their well-being and healthy growth as individuals) should be a priority.  When we do that, they will shine, and their work will reflect that.

  • “A culture of kindness enables innovation.”

This was one of the most interesting points that Sabin makes in her article.  In order to thrive, it is critical that businesses be flexible, responsive, and innovative – it’s critical for ministry, too (see Pandemic 2020/21 for a recent example) – and people are only free to creatively innovate when they are comfortable and empowered in their work environment.  Here’s a killer quote: “Employees who are browbeaten by leadership and living in fear of making errors or losing their job create a culture of people in constant survival mode.”  People in constant survival mode are not innovators.  There is too much risk associated with innovation.  A culture of kindness, on the other hand, promotes feelings of security and confidence that unleash creative and innovative approaches.

  • “Trust and loyalty are byproducts of kindness.”

Loyal teams are strong teams.  Trusting congregations embrace challenges posed by their leadership.  Leading with kindness builds trust and loyalty.  It is tough to lead people who are scared of us, suspicious of us, don’t feel like our word is our bond, or don’t feel like we have their best interests at heart.  It is hard to serve passionately and enthusiastically if we work for a leader who we are pretty sure will throw us under the bus the first time we threaten RESULTS.  On the other hand, for a leader who we are sure will stand by us faithfully, we’ll give that leader everything we’ve got (and then some).

Make a list of those Fruit of the Spirit on cards or in a frame, place them on your desk so that you can see them during every meeting, every call, every Zoom, and using them as a filter and guide for every leadership moment.  It is a standard endorsed by the Bible, practiced by Jesus, and certified by business leaders as a productive leadership strategy.

How about you?  Is your leadership reputation a reputation of kindness?  Is that how others would describe you?  What things could you do to promote more kind leadership in your organization (and other Fruit of the Spirit leadership moments, too)?  This is a great topic for your next staff meeting or volunteer leadership gathering!