Where Did the Nice Leaders Go?

Political season is upon us. As I watch debate after debate, I find myself asking one simple question:

What happened to civility in leadership?

Many years ago, a colleague and I were asked to create a training program to help employees – i.e. future leaders – act “more professional.” As we attempted to meet this daunting request, we made an interesting discovery.

While there are many facets that define what it means to be a “professional,” one stands above the rest as critically important: being nice to others.  We labeled that idea civility.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines civility as:

Courteous behavior.  Politeness.  A courteous act or utterance.

As one component in our program on Professionalism, we encouraged participants to explore what civility meant to them, to the people around them, and to their organization. Here’s a sample from one workshop where participants described both civil and uncivil behaviors, in their own words.

Civil behaviors Uncivil behaviors
  1. Saying “hi”
  2. Holding doors
  3. Acknowledging others
  4. Giving due credit
  5. Making introductions
  6. Waiting your turn
  7. Keeping commitments
  8. Being on time
  9. Being patient
  10. Listening
  11. Saying “please” and “thank you”
  12. Serving yourself last
  1. Slamming doors
  2. Shouting
  3. Ignoring
  4. Giving the “stink eye”
  5. Cutting in line
  6. Name-calling
  7. Gossiping
  8. Interrupting
  9. Road rage
  10. Inappropriate gestures
  11. Broken promises
  12. A harsh tone


Before you write this off as oversimplified material we learned in preschool, I must report that, almost daily, I am saddened to learn of discourteous acts performed by leaders.

A snide remark here. An unkind look there. Sarcastic comments. Underhanded deeds. Unfriendly conduct. Hurtful quips. Making others look bad in order to get an upper hand. Winning at all costs. And the list goes on.

Much too often now, we see it in the news.

If civility is so simple, why is it so hard to do?

Why Being Nice is Hard

In an effort to explain, I offer the following:

This story comes from an interview on the PBS show: NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. On that program, David Gergen interviewed Stephen Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University and author of the book Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy.

In the interview, Carter talks about the state of civility in America today:

While we tend to think of civility as being about manners, as being about behavior, and it is partly that, I’d like to think of it as something larger, that civility is the sum of all the sacrifices that we make for the sake of living together.  And one of the things I think we’re losing in America today is the sense of...going the extra mile, doing something we don’t have to do, that the law doesn’t require of us, in order to help someone else’s life be a little bit better. The sacrifice will make for a common enterprise.

There it is – what makes civility hard: sacrifice.  To be civil means to give of ourselves. To surrender, to lose. To be selfless, a servant.

And in today’s world of me, me, me and take, take, take, have we forgotten to give? Is there too much at risk? If so, then what do we stand to lose in our efforts to achieve civility?

Consider the following:

  • Being right
  • Getting the upper-hand
  • Winning
  • Looking good
  • Forwarding our own agenda
  • Getting something “important” off our own to-do list
  • Receiving the attention of others
  • Personal comfort

These are all things that we oh-so desperately desire in the moment, right? But is there anything on this list of fragile short-term gains that we couldn’t also achieve in the long-run, and in a more lasting manner?

The enduring benefits of being nice are countless, and include:

  • Positive relationships
  • Trust
  • Support
  • Goodwill
  • Reciprocity
  • Deposits in the emotional bank account of others
  • Improved emotional intelligence, which comes from practice
  • Innovation
  • Happy, productive work environments
  • Attracting and retaining talented people
  • Other future benefits, yet unknown

Being Nice is Worth It

The long-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs. Further, we know that people want leaders who care, who support them, teach them, and help them grow. It is hard to do those things when we lead with fear and hate - products of incivility - which never amounts to anything positive. Lately we've seen the byproducts of incivility including anxiety, unrest, and violence…so why ever make that choice?

To quote the great Maya Angelou:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Putting Nice Back in Leadership

How do we put civility back in leadership? Simple. Start by expecting nothing less. Ask yourself, do I expect civility? Do I model it? Does my organization value and nurture it?  If not, find the gaps and make the necessary changes.

From there, being civil requires patience, understanding, emotional intelligence and the willingness to make small sacrifices for the sake of others.

Let’s bring civility back to leadership. Please and thank you.

In closing, I want to give thanks to my former colleague, Kathy Collins.  Kathy and I partnered on the course referenced above many years ago and the ideas I shared in this post were inspired by that work we did together. I felt it was important to acknowledge her here. Because, to do otherwise, would be, well…uncivil.


Twitter feed is not available at the moment.