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Breaking the Cycle of Unkind Leadership (Part 1)

Recently, someone tagged me in a post wondering why business owners and senior leaders tolerated bullying. I've been thinking about it ever since and decided to share my thoughts on how we can all work on breaking the cycle of unkind leadership - of which bullying is a part - in this two part series.

Part 1: Just because you experienced it doesn't mean others have to...

The other day, I was in my office working on some client work that really needed to get done. I was under a tight deadline and totally focused on what I was doing. I was deep in thought when the phone rang. It was my neighbor's son. He and his wife and their six month old baby live next door with his parents. My next door neighbors were away visiting another of their children, and the son was at work, leaving the young mom home alone with the baby. My next door neighbor's son told me that the baby wouldn't stop crying and the young mom was distraught and didn't know what to do. More than an hour away from home, he was worried about his wife and baby, and decided to give me a call and ask if I could help.

So I took off my "Consultant / Business owner" Hat, put on on my "Ganty (what my next door neighbor's kids refer to me as - Grandma Aunty Neighbor) Karyn" Hat, shut my computer and went next door to see what I could do to make things better. After about thirty minutes I got the baby to sleep and calmed the young mom down. Then I sat and told her funny stories about when my kids (now 31 and 27) were little until her husband got home.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "But Karyn, you had so much work to do. Kids cry all the time. The mom could have just 'toughed' it out until her husband got home. They didn't need to bother you. How is she ever going to learn to stand on her own two feet?"

But here's why I went over to help. And why this story is relevant to breaking the cycle of unkind leadership.

When my kids were little (long before the era of cell phones and instant ways to contact people) I was a stay-at-home mom. I was alone every day with two kids who were often screaming and unhappy. My husband went to school all day, my parents and extended family were far away in a different country and wildly different time zone. There was no one to call for help. Every day, no matter what happened, I just had to tough it out.

And it was terrible. I made it through. I "toughed it out". But it was really awful.

When my neighbor's son called me, that was all that I could think about.

And the fact that I now had a choice. I could let my neighbor's young wife suffer just like I had...or I could go and help her. She didn't have to suffer like I did. Even though I had work to do. I could break the cycle. And so I did.

So often, how we treat others, and how we act and respond in all kinds of situations has to do with our own past experience (good or bad) of how others have treated us.

Especially our leaders.

Because we learn how to act towards and respond to others from how our leaders act towards and respond to us. Our parents are our first leaders, then our teachers, coaches and professors. Then we learn from those who lead us in the community, political leaders and leaders at work.

And those ways of responding to and treating people, even when they are unkind, often become unconscious and repeated over and over again. Even when we didn't like the way something was done to us (like being left alone with a crying baby), we think: "But it happened to me...and if I survived it and made it though, so should the other person." (Lately, I've heard this argument used frequently by people who disagree with forgiving student loans: "I had to pay mine, so they should have to pay theirs...")

It's just like the old cartoon where the leader yells at the employee, the employee goes home and yells at their spouse, the spouse yells at the child and the child kicks the dog. Except, as a good friend of mine, Deondra Wardell reminded me, it doesn't stop there. The child then goes to school, bullies other children and then grows up to be the leader who yells at the employee...and the cycle begins again.

Unkind leadership leads to generations of unkind leadership, as you can see in this illustration from Chapter Three of The Kind Leader:

But it doesn't have to. I can break the unkind leadership cycle. And so can you. Each of us can.

Simply by becoming conscious of the unkind leadership systems we have grown up under and that we now may be unconscious of, making them conscious, and deciding to make different choices.

We simply don't have to "do unto others as we have had done unto us".

We can choose not to tolerate unkindness, and unkind leadership. We can choose to focus on helping people, not just on results and each of our choices (like my decision to stop working and go to help my young neighbor mom with the baby) will break the cycle of unkind leadership.

More on how to do that later this week in Part 2.


You can read more about the Vicious Cycle of Fear in Chapter Three of The Kind Leader: A Practical Guide to Eliminating Fear, Creating Trust and Leading with Kindness.

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