Cruel To Be Kind

In 1979, Nick Lowe released “Cruel To Be Kind” which peaked at #12 on the US charts that summer. The video for the song was played on MTV on the first day of broadcasting and was shot during Nick and Carlene Carter’s wedding (shooting the video actually made him late for the wedding.) The refrain Nick repeats several times is:

You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind, means that I love you, baby

Interestingly, the line “cruel to be kind” comes from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” where Hamlet says, “I must be cruel only to be kind, thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” In these lines, Hamlet is addressing his mother who he feels must be kept from continuing her current behavior by his cruelty. It is another version of “harsh medicine may affect the best cure.”

I was thinking about the numerous ways I have seen this play out in leadership, many of them recently. Often, leaders fail to do the necessary and most beneficial thing, thinking they are being compassionate. Compassion is “helping those in need.” Our actions as leaders should help those we serve with their most pressing needs.

When our children were little, we often did not allow them to do what they wanted to do. As toddlers, they often wanted to run from us into danger, touch hot or sharp things, put inappropriate things in their mouths, and too many other harmful actions to list here. When we interfered with their desire, they were unhappy—often attention attracting and loudly, embarrassingly, and tragically unhappy. Their response would lead you to believe that life would never be OK again. But is always was. The limitations we set resulted in our children’s safety, which was more important to us than their present happiness.

Great leaders must make difficult decisions that impact people. Sometimes what is best for the individual and the group is painful and unpleasant in the moment, but it results in better outcomes in the future.

A great current example is social distancing and staying home to stay safe. This is not fun. This is disruptive. This is difficult. However, this will save lives. Staying home and staying safe is one of the ways we can slow the spread of COVID-19 to reduce the risk of our healthcare system being overburdened and failing. The pain we experience in staying home is the “cruelty” that brings about the ‘kindness” of a society that can care for the sick.

In wartime, military leaders give orders that result in the death of soldiers. The desired outcome of ending the war (kindness) requires sacrifice (cruelty.) We struggle with this. This struggle has the same basis as the struggle a young parent experiences as they limit their child’s freedom, only the stakes are much higher.

This is the truth of the paradox, though. It is often unpopular and uncomfortable to cause any amount of pain to another person, even if that momentary pain results in a better outcome. Parents don’t want their children to be unhappy, politicians don’t want to upset their voters, and leaders often want to be friends instead of leaders.

There are two mistakes I see made over and over (and have made them myself many times.)

First is failing to make the best decision because it is difficult, uncomfortable, and may cause others pain. This can manifest in keeping someone in a position where they are not thriving, waiting too long to adjust policies, failure to modify spending or manpower levels in a downturn, or not making necessary organizational changes because of the effect on a single individual. Leaders who fail to confront these difficult situations cause long-term harm to the organization and all the people affected by it, which is far greater than the short-term pain they are trying to avoid.

Second is making the difficult decision but not handling the impacted person or people with respect, dignity and compassion. You do not have to look very far to find examples of companies that have laid off team members in a cold, impersonal, and disrespecting way. The saddest part about this is the effort needed to treat people with respect is minimal. It doesn’t really cost more or take much more time. What it takes is the belief that people are intrinsically and equally valuable and then treating them that way.

As leaders we will be faced with decisions that harm some in the short term to benefit more in the longer term. Every policy and staffing decision we make will not benefit some “one”, so that we can benefit most. However, even when the choice we must make seems cruel in the moment, we can act on that decision with kindness, respect, and compassion. Sometimes we must endure the bad so that worse remains behind. That is what great leaders do, and that is The Kimray Way.