Skip to navigationSkip to content
NICE TRY

Can a person be “too nice” to be a strong leader?

A floor mat says "We appreciate your business!"
Reuters/Mike Segar
Don’t be a doormat—but don’t be afraid to be nice, either.
  • Kevin Walkup
By Kevin Walkup

CEO, Harmonate

I’ve been described a time or two as a nice person. I am pretty sure it was meant as a compliment. But in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to be sure.

Outspoken Peter Thiel’s Palantir appears headed for an IPO as he wears complaints about his views and style as a badge of honor. The unapologetic Elon Musk continues to grab headlines on a near-daily basis that switch between spectacular achievements and openly challenging his critics.

Even brands meant to offer alternatives to white testosterone have turned out to be susceptible to abrasiveness. Somehow it is still frequently seen as a sign of drive and determination that pays off.

But leaders who are persistently nice can be tougher than they’re given credit for. Radical Candor author Kim Scott is sometimes accused of promoting harshness by advising managers to directly challenge people when offering feedback. The critics miss her point that the potential for radical candor, and telling it like it is, is only possible after it’s shown that the leader cares and values the team member they’re critiquing.

Nice leaders lift teams and win marathons. I’ve seen one software developer refer to it as relational leadership; it works because business at the end of the day is built on trust and relationships that produce compounding value.

What’s relational leadership? The concept refers back to psychologist Michael C. Reichert’s investigations into “relational teaching,” and his thinking on how students achieve more when they believe a teacher and their classmates care about and value them.

I’ll confess up front that I’m an inveterate fan of the nice approach, exemplified by the story of Daniel in the Bible (I’m a longtime church goer, which is another odd thing to be in Silicon Valley). In the Old Testament, Daniel rejects the food and wine offered by the Babylonian king who has captured the Israelites. He’s standing up for his values, not succumbing to the conquering powers. Later, the king throws Daniel into the lions’ den, but he leaves miraculously unscathed. Daniel is tough, and a symbol of integrity and grace under pressure. He is also persistently nice.

Lessons from Dell

Early in my career as a director at Dell, I had the idea that offering certain consulting services for free would cut revenues in the short-term but deliver big-time in the medium and long term. Colleagues understandably insisted we were foolish to drop the fee-for-services model. Nobody else was doing it. We were leaving money on the table.

Nice guys (and gals) know that leaving some money behind is sometimes an investment in the future.

Permitting loads of people to get a deep sense, for free, into what we could see in their systems resulted in them getting hooked on our storage products. We were giving them insights they hadn’t had before. We also were gaining crucial data that told us a heck of a lot about how our customers behaved, about what they needed and, most importantly, what solution they would be willing to pay for, so that our products were hyper-aligned with helping them grow their businesses. As we used our new knowledge to develop products targeting specific audiences and challenges, sales skyrocketed. Sometimes nice guys finish first.

The importance of listening

I believe in a leadership strategy of relating to every member of the team and who they are right now. CEOs draft and initiate plans. But a good planner utilizes the team to maximum effect, making sure everyone on the team knows what to do. Once set in motion, the plan should succeed with or without the leader. In the middle of a project, leaders have but one role: providing the support necessary to make sure the plan succeeds, including redirecting talent to respond to events.

When Robert Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” in the 1960s, he wanted executives to respect and listen to the youth protesting in the streets over civil rights, economic unfairness, and the Vietnam War. The top-down model of leadership favored among the Silent Generation couldn’t be expected to succeed with flower children.

The command-and-control approach never really disappeared, however. If there is a common ingredient in the IPO collapses that preceded the pandemic, and the #MeToo movement that preceded that, it’s that vicious leadership can get results and bend the rules—but only for so long. At some point there is a reckoning. And the longer it takes to come, the more biblical the fall from grace.

One of the benefits of being nice is that you don’t have to worry about either being nasty or being exposed for your nastiness. Another benefit is that there is an edge in taking the path less traveled to victory. Niceness can be that path.

Today, CEOs must again listen if they want to understand the new forces influencing their future employees and customers. Listening requires humility, compassion, and the strength to honestly consider new ideas. Those who genuinely listen, and listen closely, might be nice. They will certainly be more informed about what might translate into success in the coming years.

Kevin Walkup is CEO of Harmonate, a data operations firm serving private funds.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.