LARK – An Indispensable Tool for Leadership Greatness

Say it ain’t so… not another acronym for business success?

Yep, afraid so – but this acronym is not just another run-of-the-mill business platitude.

This concept maybe one of the most important and indispensable tools for achieving leadership greatness.

Ok, enlighten me.

Great leaders regularly and unabashedly give “Leadership Acts of Random Kindness” – or … LARK.

What is a “Leadership Act of Random Kindness” (LARK)?

Leadership Acts of Random Kindness are the small gestures of appreciation and the everyday acts of common courtesy that leaders give freely to people at every level in an organization.  A LARK is given without expectation of something in return; it is given freely from the heart.

Leadership Acts of Random Kindness are not about money or material things.  Sure, under the right circumstances, monetary gifts can bring about short-term results.  A LARK goes far beyond money or material awards.

A LARK is a gift of your attention… a gift of your time… a gift of your spirit.

Aesop once wrote, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

If you believe that leading with kindness is essential for leadership greatness, here are some suggestions for how you can incorporate “Leadership Acts of Random Kindness” (LARK) into your basic leadership principles:

  • Start with the Truth – Being kind means being honest.  Kindness must be genuine; it must be based in reality.  If you have a tough decision to make or if you need to deliver difficult news, do it!  Just do it with kindness and respect.
  • Make it Personal - Generic forms of recognition or appreciation often will fail to impress or motivate an individual.  Your Leadership Acts of Random Kindness (LARK) should have meaning that is specific and tailored to each person.
  • Focus on Small Gestures of Kindness – Sometimes it’s the little things that matter the most.  Smile.  Say “Thank You” … again, and again.  Ask questions.  Remember people’s names and related personal information.  Take a colleague to lunch.  Celebrate the significant milestones in people’s lives.  Oh yes, say “Thank You” again.
  • Recognize People… often and with sincerity – Show appreciation for people’s contributions.  Find ways to say, “You really made a difference today.”  Or, “Your Work on the (fill in the blank) really helped the team.”  Make your recognition personalized… timely… and meaningful.  Celebrate successes… especially the small victories.
  • Put it in Writing – While email messages are good for routine business communications, nothing beats a handwritten note of thanks or praise.  Keep personalized stationery on hand for these occasions; even a “post-it” note placed on a computer screen with 3 or 4 short handwritten sentences of appreciation (remember to be specific) can make a person’s day.
  • Give Encouragement… especially to a teammate or peer that needs it – People never seem to tire of getting well-timed expressions of encouragement.
  • Give People More Visibility – Find Ways to promote your team’s accomplishments to senior management.  This LARK is a great team motivator and it may engender fierce loyalty.  Share the spotlight.  As Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
  • Be Present – Give the gift of your time… your attention… your expertise… your optimism… your compassion… and yes, even your forgiveness.
  • Make Kindness a Core Leadership Value – When others see you “walk the talk”, they will be more inclined to lead with kindness.  Kindness is a compelling organizational strategy… it’s also extremely ‘contagious’.
  • See Kindness in Others – By doing so, you strengthen your capacity for tolerance and patience.  Humility and empathy are wondrous expressions of kindness… especially when dealing with difficult people.  Abraham Lincoln once remarked, “If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.”

Most good leaders recognize that when you connect with a person’s mind you get intellectual acceptance.

Great leaders know that when you touch a person’s heart with kindness and compassion, you ignite the flames of passion… commitment… and excellence.

So, give LARK a try.

You may be surprised how far it will take you and your organization.

Some Final Thoughts –

Here are some additional ideas for showing that you care and for giving back:

  • Send a hand written note of thanks for great customer service
  • Pay the toll for the person behind you
  • Volunteer your help randomly
  • Be kind to your environment
  • Cheer the dispirited
  • Deliver a basket of goodies to an old folk’s or children’s home
  • Do a secret act of service
  • Let the person in a hurry behind you, go before you
  • Share a smile
  • Skip your expensive lunch today and donate the money to the needy
  • Read to a child
  • Treat a friend to a movie for no reason
  • Be kind to stray cats and dogs
  • Lend a helping hand to a distraught parent
  • Hear the homeless – collect old clothes from family and friends and take them to the closest shelter

I’m All Ears

Listening is a gift.

When leaders really listen, they give the gift of:

  • Respect
  • Attention
  • Affirmation
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Compassion
  • Kindness

Listening – “real” listening – is the foundation for leading with Humility… Empathy… Civility… and Kindness.

Great leaders are great listeners.

Great leaders listen with their:

  • Ears – they listen to more than just the words.  They listen for the tone… inflection… volume… and intensity of the words.
  • Eyes – they pay attention to body language. They focus on the expressive content of the speaker’s non-verbal behavior.
  • Heart – they look beneath the words to discern the speaker’s emotions, desires, fears, and aspirations.

Great leaders listen for understanding… for the meaning beyond the words.  They listen for collaboration, not confrontation. They show respect by asking open-ended questions.

When great leaders listen, they have the unique ability to make the other person feel as though he/she are the most important person in the world at that moment.

Listening is not merely a “nice” thing to do.  Tom Peters, in his book – The Little BIG Things – asserts, “the ROI from listening is higher than any other single [leadership] activity.” (p. 328).

Most people reading this blog post have been through some type of “active listening” training.  There are countless books and articles on listening in the marketplace today. (See Peters’ The Little BIG Things, p. 331)

When you distill all the advice and suggestions on effective listening down into a manageable number, you come up with five overarching principles.

Here are the five essential components of great listening:

  • Be Present – Pay attention… don’t think about what you want to say next or what your next questions should be.  Slow down… be in the moment.  Acknowledge the other person’s value.
  • Be Quiet – Don’t interrupt the other person… don’t finish their sentences for them… don’t offer advice unless requested.  Let silence be your guide.
  • Be Concerned – You can’t really listen if you don’t really care about what the other person is saying… show that you care by asking open-ended questions about their opinions, beliefs, and needs.
  • Be Open – Suspend judgment while the other person is talking… be aware of your non-verbal behavior… look for ways to encourage the person doing the talking (nod occasionally… maintain good eye contact… lean forward… paraphrase what you heard… use phrases like “I see”, “Yes, please continue”, “Right”, “I understand.”)
  • Be Humble – Focus on the other person, not on you… be less concerned with winning the argument or dominating the conversation and more about gaining insight and understanding.

Great listening is hard work.  It requires a desire to learn and to understand.  It is civility at the highest level.

Most of all, becoming a great listener requires practice!

Some final thoughts on listening…

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”  Winston Churchill

“Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak.”  Epictetus

“Who speaks, sows; Who listens, reaps.”  Argentine Proverb

‘When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”  Ernest Hemingway

“Don’t Tread On Me”

Being civil doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat.

When you are the target of rudeness or bad behavior, you have choices.

You need not roll over and let people walk all over you. On the other hand, responding to rudeness with more rudeness just compounds the amount of incivility in the world.

Here is a quick quiz:

Suppose during a weekly staff meeting you have just made a presentation on a topic that is very important to you and one of your peers uses sarcasm and insulting remarks to criticize and dismiss your conclusions – What do you do?

You can either:

  1. Acquiesce and meekly give in to their arguments.
  2. Shut off your computer… collect your personal belongings… and abruptly walk out of the meeting.
  3. Cast your eyes downward and withdraw into yourself in silence.
  4. Verbally lash out at your tormentor with personal insults of your own.

Yes, this is a trick question. None of these responses are correct or productive.

Often, when we are the recipients of rude behavior or incivility our first reaction is to strike back or retreat. We respond with classic “fight or flight” behavior.

Instead of allowing your emotions to control your response to rudeness, you might want to consider some of these suggestions:

  • Remain Calm – Resist the temptation to respond with a verbal counter-attack… take a few moments to collect yourself… cool off… breathe… count to ten (or whatever number)… get control of your emotions.
  • Know Yourself – Recognize that your colleague’s attack may be pushing your civility “hot buttons”… understand that your ‘desired’ response may be a result of your bruised feelings, not the words of your attacker.
  • Don’t Personalize – Overcome the natural tendency to believe that your peer is attacking you personally rather than your ideas or conclusions… maybe your colleague is having a bad day… maybe his/her response is born out of something other than you or your presentation.
  • Assess the Situation – Decide what to do… is this a good time and place to confront your attacker? Can you ignore their sarcasm or insulting comments? Should you attempt to counter their arguments during the meeting with a firm, but polite response? Should you wait until after the meeting is over and confront your peer in private?
  • Confront the Rudeness – Confronting rudeness requires courage… tact… and firmness. When responding to incivility, consider these three actions:
    1. Identify the specific rude behaviors (insults… sarcasm… belittling comments)
    2. Let the attacker know how their behavior impacted you,
    3. Make it clear that you expect the hurtful behavior by your attacker not be repeated in the future.

When you are the target of deliberate or even unintentional rudeness, it hurts. It’s natural to want to respond ‘in kind’ to acts of incivility. If possible, resist the temptation to “even the score.”

Being civil demands a deliberate effort… an act of will to treat others with respect and dignity.

Being civil also means that you need not accept or tolerate rudeness. Stand your ground.

Remember, rudeness is generally someone else’s problem dumped on you.

How you respond to incivility is a direct refection on you and your character.

Perhaps this wonderful quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might shed some clarity on this topic – “The Old Law of an Eye for an Eye leaves everybody blind.”

What is Civility?

Civility is like pornography.

That got your attention – didn’t it?

To paraphrase the late US Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, in his infamous concurring opinion on the threshold for pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964):

“Civility – You know it when you see it.”

So, what is civility?

Civility is more than good manners.  Civility is not just proper etiquette.  Civility involves more than being nice.

Civility is all about RESPECT.

According to Dr. P.M. Forni, “being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint… respect… and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness.”*

Civility is a form of goodness; civility means treating people with dignity and decency.

Civility is not merely attitudinal.  It is much more than a mind-set.  ‘Wanting’ to be civil is like ‘wanting’ to get into shape – civility has no value unless you work at it.

Some of the many behaviors associated with Civility are:

  • Compassion
  • Consideration
  • Courtesy
  • Fairness
  • Graciousness
  • Kindness
  • Politeness
  • Being Polite
  • Self-Control
  • Selflessness
  • Tact
  • Sincerity
  • Tolerance
  • Awareness

Conversely, Incivility has been described as:

  • Rudeness
  • Bullying
  • Selfish
  • Abusive
  • Arrogance
  • Nastiness
  • Demeaning
  • Dismissive
  • Condescending
  • Disrespectful
  • Mean- spirited
  • Inconsiderate
  • Impolite
  • Belittling
  • Patronizing
  • Lack of Courtesy

A simple definition of incivility might be bad behavior characterized by a lack of consideration for others.

Acts of incivility come in many different flavors.  Some of these behaviors are merely annoying; most bruise and wound the human psyche.

At the end of the day, being uncivil is being a Jerk!

When considering the advantages of civility in the workplace, maybe the first question should be:  “Whom would you rather work for?”  An arrogant, abusive, demeaning, or rude boss OR a leader that leads with compassion…decency…fairness…and respect for others.

Civility is a critical component for leadership greatness.  Treating people with respect and dignity enhances the quality of our organizations and our lives.

* Choosing Civility:  The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, P.M. Forni, St. Martin’s Press, NYC, 2002.

The Costs of Workplace Incivility

Incivility is bad for business.

Incivility in the workplace:

  • Lowers productivity
  • Destroys morale
  • Increases employee attrition
  • Causes health and wellness issues
  • Increases the potential for costly lawsuits
  • Alienates customers
  • Damages relationships and ruins companies’ brands
  • Costs $’s and reduces profitability

Among the many excellent books dealing with the topic of “workplace incivility,” two stand out as being uniquely important:

  • The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert Sutton, Warner Business Books, NYC, 2007.
  • The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What To Do About It, Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, Portfolio, NYC, 2009.

Leaders who aspire to act in a civil and respectful manner should read these books.

If you want to understand the real and tragic costs of workplace incivility, pay close attention to The Cost of Bad Behavior.

In this book, Christine Pearson and Christine Porath suggest, “that workplace incivility is one of today’s most substantial economic drains on American business.”

They go on to state “that job stress, much of which has been shown to stem from workplace incivility, costs US businesses $300 billion a year.”

That’s 300 billion dollars lost every year because of rude, insensitive, and demeaning behavior!

Citing numerous surveys and studies, including their own extensive research, Pearson and Porath assert that:

  • Nearly 50% of American workers report being treated rudely once or more per week [Italics are mine]
  • 60% of workplace incivility occurs top down
  • Men are twice as likely to be uncivil; men and women are equally likely to be treated uncivilly
  • People committing uncivil acts tend to be older (average age 41) and more experienced than their “targets” (average age 34)

In calculating the actual costs associated with workplace incivility, Pearson and Porath suggest that:

  • 53% of employees lost work time worrying about an incident of incivility
  • 28% lost time trying to avoid the offending ‘jerk’
  • 37% reported a weakened sense of engagement with their employer
  • 22% actually reduced their work output
  • 46% contemplated changing their jobs
  • 12% actually quit their jobs


Organizations and leaders that tolerate or even tacitly promote workplace incivility are literally throwing money down the drain.

Workplace incivility is toxic to an organization’s survival. It poisons the environment. It craters productivity. It obliterates employee morale and engagement. It pisses off customers.

Workplace incivility is, quite simply, bad for business!

Successful Jerks in the Workplace: The Norm or the Exception?

Civility is a hot topic today.

Lots of people are talking about it.

Lately, leaders from every arena have called for a return to common courtesy and civility in our professional and personal lives.

Yet, one of the most common questions I’m asked about leading with HECK – Humility… Empathy… Civility… and Kindness is, “Ed, you believe that civility is an essential element for leadership greatness, then why are there so many ‘jerks’ leading successful companies?

Great question.

Yes, there are a few well-known ‘jerks’ (or to use Bob Sutton’s word –“assholes”) running successful companies.

Yes, their organizations seem to thrive and prosper in spite of the bad behavior that emanates from the top.

And yes, some of these leaders are extremely wealthy (as measured in monetary terms).

However, I would disagree with the words “many” and “leading” in the question.

Sure, there are a few tyrants who are running successful companies, but I believe these people are the exception not the norm.  There are many leaders who consciously and consistently exemplify grace and civility when leading their organizations.  These leaders are generally much more successful than some of their infamous counter-parts.

Also, there is a big difference between ‘running’ and ‘leading’ a successful organization.

Mean-spirited or abusive managers often run their organizations using fear and intimidation.  In many cases, these ‘jerks’ have a well-respected layer of talented senior level executives that insulate and buffer the organization from the top person’s rude behavior.

More often, according to Bob Sutton, “organizations that drive in compassion and drive out fear attract superior talent, have lower turnover costs, share ideas more freely, have less dysfunctional internal competition, and trump the external competition.”

Finally, I believe in “corporate karma” – you know, ‘what goes around comes around.’

Yes, while some leaders can unleash their “inner asshole” and attempt to bully and coerce their followers into submission, this leadership style will generally only work in the short run.

Some companies might even tolerate or excuse a leader’s bad behavior because these executives may be recognized as strategic visionaries or brilliant functional experts.

However, over time this approach to ‘leading’ will eventually wear out the organization and create a long list of potential enemies.

When the fall comes, as it inevitably does for so many organizational tyrants, who will be in their corner with a kind thought or words of encouragement?

It’s your choice – leading with Civility or being an institutional bully.

How You Can Be More Civil in the Workplace

It’s time for a reality check.

Question – Are you always civil and courteous in the workplace?

If you answered “Yes,” congratulations!  You are among the very few… the very perfect.

If your answer was “No,” then join the rest of us mortals.

Most of us have been ‘jerks’ at work at some time in our careers.  We have all had bad days (or weeks… or even months).   Sometimes our capacity for self-control and tolerance has been severely diminished by the vicissitudes of everyday life.

When it comes to civility in the workplace, none of us will be courteous and considerate all the time.  Perfection – in terms of reigning in our “inner jerk” (thanks again, Bob Sutton) – is an illusion.

However, if you aspire to be more civil in the workplace, you may want to consider the following suggestions:

  • Show Respect for Others’
    • Opinions – Learn to respect other people’s ideas and opinions, even when you violently disagree with them.  Ask more questions.  Who knows?  You might learn something new or see the world in a different way.
    • Time – Keep appointments… be on time… respond promptly to other people’s messages, phone calls, and emails.
    • Space – Pay attention to how you manage physical space in conversations.  Avoid physical gestures that seek to coerce or intimidate others.  Respect people’s privacy and personal boundaries.
  • Be Calm… Be Composed… Be Considerate – Check your anger at the door… count to ten when provoked… take a walk around the building – it’s good for your mental and physical well-being.
  • Express Gratitude – Embrace the power of “Thank you” and “Please.” These common courtesies are at the core of civility.
  • Apologize When You Screw Up – Banish the idea that saying “I’m sorry” is a sign of weakness.  Apologize sincerely and often… don’t make excuses or blame others for your mistakes.  As Tom Peters so eloquently states, “If you foul up, fess up.”
  • Speak Kindly – Think before you speak, especially if you’re angry.  Don’t gossip or speak ill about someone behind his or her back. Follow the old adage, “Praise in public… criticize in private.”  Keep profanity out of the workplace.  Unless you’re the next Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, avoid sarcastic jokes or caustic comments.
  • Watch Your Moods – Bad moods are contagious.  They poison employee morale and they are destructive to the very fabric of your organization.
  • Pay Attention – When you acknowledge and focus on others, you acknowledge their importance to you… their feelings… and the things they do for you.  Celebrate the accomplishments of others.

In their wonderful 2007 book, Return to Civility, John Sweeney and the folks at The Brave New Workshop assembled a list of 365 things all of us could do to make this a more civil world.

Here are a few of their ideas:

  • Smile – Behind every smile is the potential for a new adventure in friendship and understanding. (#9)
  • Learn when to keep quiet – Take a break and give yourself the luxury of listening to someone else speak. (#111)
  • Keep an open mind, and treat others as you like to be treated – Try to picture yourself on the receiving end of what you just said or did. (#151)
  • Accept the mistakes of others graciously, knowing you make mistakes too – You never know when you’ll need someone to return the favor. (#56)
  • Believe in something beyond yourself to keep your ego in check – There are more important things in the universe than your crisis of the day. (#35)

Civility is a classic paradox.  It is a means to achieve leadership greatness AND it is an end that all great leaders should pursue every day.

Civility is good for you.  Civility is good for your followers.  And Civility is good for your business.

A Final Thought…

“So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

President John F. Kennedy – excerpt from his 1961 Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Some Things Never Change

Some things never go out of style.

Romantic sunsets… ice cream on a warm summer evening… the hug from a small child or a loved one… the cold nose of beloved pet.  Bow ties… well, maybe not bow ties.
Some things never seem to age or lose their special significance over time.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of those rare books that remains ageless.  First published in 1937, Carnegie wrote this book to help people learn more about the “fine art of getting along with people in everyday business.”

Many of the ideas offered in his book are as relevant today as they were nearly 75 years ago.  Every great leader should have this work on their bookshelf.

One of his major principles stands out as particularly timeless.

“If you want people to care about you, you must first care about them.”

Think about it.

How many people are going to follow a leader who doesn’t care about them?  Really care… not just on the surface as in “I care about you so long as you continue to advance my goals or objectives.”

Taking a genuine and sincere interest in others is at the core of leading with Humility… Empathy… Civility… and Kindness.

How can you show your followers that you care?

Find a way to help them discover meaning in their jobs.  Give the “gift of appreciation” – show them that what they do and who they are are equally important.  Provide a reason for them to get out of bed every morning – a reason beyond their paychecks.  Engage their hearts as well as their minds.

Showing that you truly care about your followers as individuals is the first step to leadership greatness.

[If you want to take Dale Carnegie's classic ideas one step further, I urge you to pick up the book, It's Not Just Who You Know, by Tommy Spaulding.  Written in 2010, this extraordinary book takes building deep and lasting business relationships to a new level.  It's a great read!]

The Power of 3

Is there a magic formula for leadership greatness?

In a word, no!

There is no universal “silver bullet” for leadership greatness.

Being a great leader depends on many factors.  Being a great leader involves doing many small things well every day.

If there is no “secret sauce”, then what is the one thing you can to do today to begin to discover your leadership greatness?

You can start by embracing the immense “Power of 3” – the power of these 3 small words:

“You are right.”
“I was wrong.”
“I am sorry.”
“Help me understand.”
“Thank you, ________”
“Great job, _________”

Leadership greatness doesn’t start with long philosophical musings or extensive training.  Being a great leader begins with leading with Humility… Empathy… Civility… and Kindness.

Great leaders believe that small, simple gestures of kindness can make all the difference.

Great Leaders recognize and demonstrate “The Power of 3” every day.

90% Agreement

Last week, I met with a former CEO whom I had worked for during my career in Human Resources.  He had read my latest “What the HECK!” newsletter and in an email message said that he agreed with 90% of it.  He suggested that we get together for lunch and talk about the “other 10%.”

Well, I’d take 90% agreement from this person any day of the week.  He is an outstanding leader.  He is extremely intelligent.  He is honest, decent, fair, and extremely successful.  Oh yes, he’s tough as nails, too.

Over lunch we caught up on our respective lives and talked about the “state of business” today.  Toward the end of our conversation, I brought up the “10% gap.”

“My issue is with your disapproval of the concept – ‘It’s not personal, it’s just business’”, he stated.  Continuing on, he suggested, “that most leaders have to make tough decisions around their businesses – layoffs, terminations, divestitures, plant closures, etc. – and they can’t afford to let personal considerations or emotions sway or dissuade them from making these hard choices.”

When I realized we were talking about the classic problem of the “what” versus the “how”, I offered the premise that leading with HECKHumility… Empathy… Civility… and Kindness doesn’t mean running away from tough or hard decisions.

On the contrary, great leaders will confront reality and move quickly to address difficult situations.  The difference is “How” they implement their decisions.  Leaders who lead with HECK will implement their choices while preserving the respect and dignity of the people touched by those decisions.

At the end of our lunch, I reminded him of the philosophy he consistently demonstrated throughout his distinguished career – “Do what’s right for the business and then take care of the people.”  I suggested that our 10% gap was not so wide after all, but merely a different way to approach the same idea – treat all people with compassion and civility.

My appreciation and thanks go out to my former boss and current friend.  As always, he spoke his mind with integrity, compassion and civility.