While playing Pickleball recently with some of our executive team, I heard someone say, “Don’t mistake kindness for weakness.” It was in reference to a team member who is characterized at work by being extremely helpful and willing to serve in any capacity. Despite their position, they are the first to pitch in (from picking up trash to helping craft significant policies) and are always gracious and considerate of others. In short, they are kind.
What was surprising to some was how competitive this person became on the Pickleball court. Still kind, but very much about winning. They demonstrated a determination and power that is always there but became much easier to see in the context of a competitive game. I realized in that moment that because we often confuse kindness with weakness, we can be guilty of being unkind to appear strong.
The classic example of this is the school bully. While often possessing a physical advantage, what makes the bully a bully is their penchant for being unkind to establish power over others. They often have extremely low self-confidence and compensate for this by being unkind, thinking it makes them look strong. It doesn’t.
Leading with power, often called positional power, is a weak move for a leader to make. When the people I serve will only do what I want done because I have the power to punish or fire them, I will get only what I demand and no more. People who are being led with positional power will rarely add their own creativity and innovation to projects and tasks.
Additionally, positional power only works when the person wielding the power is present. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” is a cliché way to describe this behavior. People who are responding to positional power will be likely to let up or even stop performing when the person in charge is absent.
The opposite of positional power is relational leadership, the practice of respecting and treating everyone with care and kindness. Like the play on the Pickleball court, kindness is not the lack of strength or power; it is the most advanced use of power. When someone has positional power and chooses to act with kindness, it is the most powerful thing they can do.
As a leader, I have positional power. Using it too often is like being a bully on the playground. It is the weak move. Developing and using relational leadership requires a strength far greater than simply wielding the power of a title. It requires time, true care for people, and the ability to act humbly and other-oriented.
This season, we are reminded of a person who had all the power in the universe and chose to give it up and join us in the powerlessness of the human condition. God among us. The birth of Jesus Christ that we celebrate at Christmas is the defining act of kindness and mercy. The life, and death, of Jesus was consistently marked by true love and kindness. His life taught us how to treat each other with love, and his death and resurrection gave us the ability to participate in the kingdom of life and light.
Christmas is a perfect time for me to reflect on my leadership. Am I a leader who is known for the strength of kindness? Do I use my positional power to help those around me have their best life? Do I foster a culture where others are recognized and rewarded for the strength of kindness? Like Jesus, I want to be a leader who is known for love, not power. Kindness is the truest form of strength, and it is the Bison Way.