As a leader, there is perhaps nothing you have to deal with more than disappointment. You disappoint the people around you, they disappoint you, your organization disappoints investors, you disappoint yourself. The cycle is vicious. It is part and parcel of organizational life.

Sometimes, these disappointments lead to innovations and breakthroughs that are far greater than the original goal. Sometimes they lead to layoffs and restructuring. Most of the time they lead to lots of emails and conference calls and debrief conversations.

As a leader with faith in Jesus Christ, what do you do with your disappointment? Knowing full well that it will come, how do you respond?

I have long tended to personalize my disappointment. Rather than look at the whole set of circumstances and move on to more productive ways of thinking, I have grown selfish and thoughtless toward others. I will have hard conversations, but I will almost always blame myself in a way that invites shame into the process.

But there’s another way.

Gentleness isn’t a word leaders hear very often. Jack Welch has never written a bestseller called Gentle, and Jim Collins doesn’t want to tell you how to go from harsh to gentle. But this word is made of steel. It reinforces your sense of self and sense of team, when applied rightly. And as one of the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:23), it is worth cultivating properly as we worship through our work lives.

So how does this work?

My parents have a yellow lab named Baxter. My husband and I have a Yorkshire terrier named R2D2. When we bring our dog over to their house, there is a word we say to Baxter over and over and over again:

Gentle.

The person (creature, really) with power in this scenario is Baxter. He outweighs Artie (R2’s nickname) by a good 50 pounds and is three times taller. Baxter has great expectations of his play dates with Artie, but we mostly need to rein him in. So we ask him to be gentle.

In their great book Leadership on the Line, Martin Linskey and Ronald Heifetz say that “leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” If disappointment is the result of missed expectations, we will be dealing with this almost daily in our leadership. Breaking hard news, having personal conversations, receiving feedback from our colleagues. And we can take it hard and convince ourselves that everything must change, dramatically and right away.

Or . . .

We can be gentle. We can deal in a tender and kind way with the people we lead and with ourselves. We can take a moment to speak kindly, to rephrase that email, to consider the other person’s situation, to ask questions. When it comes from positions of power, this will be entirely new to many people—surprising, even. That’s great.

Surprising your team with a gentle spirit is one of the best things a leader can do. And creativity, empathy, and productivity will thrive in an environment where gentleness is encouraged.

One Response to Gentle

  1. So important to take the time to consider your people in any message being delivered, especially the hard ones. The rule I always read and did my best to apply while managing (I think this is from the One Minute Manager)- which works really well- is to sandwich a concern or problem in between praise. I think leaders need to be specific, they need to be direct, but by doing so while first praising the good that the person is doing, and ending with another note of praise or comment on exceptional potential, or anything else honest, and positive, it allows the message to come with encouragement as well. It’s also a good reminder as a leader to establish a climate where you are sure to deliver the positive messages regularly, so that there is a trusting environment in which to hear the difficult concerns.