Leadership: A Case for Being Nice

This post, originally published in January, 2012  touches on the idea that certain words evoke  images that can colour our attitudes and behaviour.  “Nice” is one such, often much maligned, word.  


My uncle, now deceased, used to have a little wooden plaque hanging on the wall of his den.  It read, “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice”

I was reminded of this the other day when I caught myself being not nice to a young man who was conducting telephone surveys for an insurance company.  Specifically, I allowed my disdain for unsolicited telephone surveys to affect the way I spoke to him.  That wasn’t fair.  And it definitely wasn’t nice.  So I apologized and then did my best to separate my dislike for the survey from my empathy for someone doing an honest and thankless job.

It occurred to me then that nice, at least in corporate settings, is often the victim of our contempt and in fact frequently equated with weakness.  The perspective is that people who are nice are pushovers. They lack character. They are spineless, maybe even incompetent.  When we ask people to describe a leader, they invariably say things like, strongdecisive, visionary, and courageous.  Rarely are they characterized as ‘nice’.  Indeed in some organizations we even expect our leaders to bring with them a measure of unpleasantness.  It goes with the territory.  After all, they are busy people. ‘Nice’ doesn’t get the job done.

But to me, it gets a bad rap.  In fact think it has an important role to play in organizational success.  I think too, that it could use some repositioning in terms of the way we think about it.

So let’s try it.

What if we decided to equate ‘nice’ with strength instead of weakness?  What would it look like?  Well, here’s what I’m thinking about that:

When “nice” = “strength”…

It would look like Kindness  ~ We’ve all heard it.  “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” It’s an old American proverb with an enduring ring of truth.  And really, it takes just as much time to be mean as it does to be kind.

It would look like Truthfulness ~ Here’s where ‘nice’ grows teeth. Sometimes engaging in difficult conversations and telling people what they need to hear to make better choices is much nicer than avoiding or misleading them.  Often, taking the easy way out is very far from being nice.

It would look like Respect  ~ To me, respect asks us to behave like adults and treat others like adults too.  There is no room for condescension or patronizing behaviour in my definition.  It’s simply not nice.

It would look like Generosity ~ Generosity is often about letting go of something we’d rather keep for ourselves.  It is a demonstration of regard and a vote of confidence.  It takes strength.  And, it’s a nice habit to adopt because generosity can be catching.

It would look like Clarity ~ Being clear about what we need and what we expect is part of the package, especially if we intend to use those expectations as a benchmark for performance appraisal at some point.  Otherwise, it’s not fair and especially not nice.

It would look like Empathy ~ Seeking to understand how things are for others is a primary role of the leader.  It’s the way s/he “tunes in” to the work environment and engages people, not only in conversation but also in playing a willing part in fulfilling the organizational purpose.

It would look like Civility ~ Good manners are certainly part of being nice.  We may think we don’t have time for this. We are too busy.  I assert, however, that for workplaces to be ‘livable’ they must include courteousness.  People work better together when they treat each other well.  It’s as simple as that.

The truth about being “nice” is, it really doesn’t matter what you call it.  It’s not about the word.  It’s about the behaviour that the word suggests.  If we choose to look at being nice as a weakness, we will continue to discount its value in the workplace.  We will cling to the notion that “nice ‘guys’ finish last” and  keep on accepting objectionable behaviour from leaders who believe it.

So let’s remember those words from the American Playwright, Wilson Mizner, ~ “Be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down”

What do you think?



Filed under building awareness, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development

7 responses to “Leadership: A Case for Being Nice

  1. Pingback: It’s Nice to be Important, But it's more Important to be Nice | Jesús Gil Hernández

  2. Pingback: Leadership: A Case for Being Nice | Leadership ...

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  4. Leadership is not a case of being nice. One can be nice, yet not a leader because they rather be a follower. One dimensions of leadership is respect. Leadership:Understanding theory, style & practice (Alizor 2012, 15)

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi John ~ I agree, one can be nice and not be a leader. And, not all leaders are nice. I just think that really effective leaders, those who motivate others to do their best, usually fit into my definition of what it means to be nice. Respect is very much a part of that.
      Thank you for your thoughts and for taking the time to share them here.

  5. I used to work in corporate and during this time I saw different styles in leadership. I have had plenty of supervisors, but very few were effective leaders .I did know one who was an effective leader, but was very rude and impolite to everyone.Most of them were letting people get away with things because of their friendship. However, I did know one who was very nice and an effective leader at the same time. He was nice, but demanded respect. It’s no surprise he got far.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jackie ~ Thanks for sharing that. You make me think too, that being friendly does not always equate to being nice. Thanks for that too and for taking the time to comment.

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