Caring and Credible Leadership

I am a naturally friendly person.  As I’ve written before, I have a friendly face.  For example, older ladies love me (I assume I remind them of their grandkids).  But when I was younger, I worried that this warmth might work against me.

As it turns out, I was both wrong and right about this.

In her book, “The Silent Language of Leaders,” Carol Kinsey Goman addresses this very paradox:

“When first introduced to a leader, we immediately and unconsciously assess him or her for warmth and authority. Obviously the most appealing leaders are seen to encompass both qualities, and the least effective leaders are those we regard as cold and inept. But as Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile described in an aptly titled article, “Brilliant but Cruel,” the problem is that we often see competence and warmth as being negatively related—warm leaders don’t appear as intelligent or skilled as those who are more negative and meaner, and tough leaders are judged far less likeable.

So the best leadership strategy is to embody both sets of traits—and to do so early and often. Let people see both sides of your leadership character. Let them know right from the beginning that you are caring and credible.”

It almost seems like a cruel joke–warm leaders are perceived as less competent than leaders who are negative and critical.

Yet Goman’s work also offers hope.  If you’re a naturally warm person, this warmth will actually help you as a leader, if you are able to clearly demonstrate your competence.  People prefer a “caring and credible” leader to a high-achieving asshole.

A lot of young entrepreneurs seem to think that they need to be tough captains of industry to lead their startups.  After all, this toughness boosts their credibility.

But if they have actual credibility (and as always, the best way to earn credibility is to deliver results, i.e. traction), they’re far better off allowing their natural warmth and caring to show through.

Investors also need to take responsibility for this; far too many VCs respond to tough times by firing the CEO and bringing in an ex-Oracle person to crack the whip–this may result in the illusion of competence, but is a far worse option than bringing in a leader who seems credible without the prop of egomania.

2 thoughts on “Caring and Credible Leadership

  1. Warmth vs. Expertise sums up every presidential election I've been alive to see, and warmth has always won.

  2. The key lesson is that those with the expertise need to develop warmth! You can't easily change human nature, but you can change your candidate.

    Note to self: Consider running for president.

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