Recently, as the ConantLeadership team and I reviewed quotes that spoke to us for a blog post on trust, we happened upon one from comedian Conan O’Brien that simply said, “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.” We were struck by his elegant distillation of a core tenet of our leadership philosophy; his quote summarizes an abundant approach to leadership and celebrates two of the most crucial behaviors necessary to achieving extraordinary results. Because you can’t just work hard. And you can’t just be kind. “Amazing things” can only happen through the magic created by both pieces, the tough and the tender, working together in harmony. Here’s why you should do both — and expect the same of others.
To achieve breakthrough in our leadership, or in any endeavor, it stands to reason that we must work hard at getting better. In the words of Marshall Goldsmith, “what got you here won’t get you there.” So we have to constantly work on things. And we have to learn, and strive, and grow. But more importantly, there’s a meaning to the “work hard” axiom that invites us to challenge others to do better, too. There is a higher ambition contained within the DNA of hard work that asks us to rise to the duty of helping those around us to be their best — in tandem with our own pursuit of personal growth.
What got you here won’t get you there.
Every single day, that challenge for improvement begins with us. In each moment, we have to model the behavior of doing the hard work if we want the people we lead to do the same. Why should they bring a do-or-die attitude to their efforts if we don’t evidence the same attitude? Why should they be wholly engaged in the daily grind of the enterprise if we aren’t equally so? They won’t be if we aren’t. That’s why we have a responsibility to be tough-minded on standards – both with ourselves and with others. With a tenacious, resolute approach, we can lift performance ever-higher. Being tough on standards is a bold way to value ourselves and others; it denotes faith in our shared capacity for outstanding achievement, and trust in our shared commitment to follow through. But it is important to remember: while we are upholding and demanding tough standards of performance, there is never a need to be overly difficult with others. That’s where being kind comes in.
In leadership, as in life, we can accomplish very little on our own. As we try to build a better organization, a better community, or a better world, we will inevitably be buoyed most by the relationships we forge and nurture. Leadership is all about people. The way we treat others will determine our success or failure. Maya Angelou famously remarked, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” She was right. We must be kind. Even when we are tough.
Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.
When we treat people respectfully, value them, and influence them with honor, we earn enough good will to enable us to move forward meaningfully in a challenging and dynamic world. This is important because it is the right thing to do — but also because a time will come when we will have to make hard decisions as leaders. Tough calls will have to be made that will be hard to bear for some. And, if we’ve got a high enough balance in our emotional “bank account” people will give us the benefit of the doubt. They’ll trust we’ve got their best interests at heart and they will know that our decision, however difficult, was made with grace, care, and consideration. Why? Because we will have demonstrated our earnest efforts to kindly treat people right with all of our behaviors leading up to that tough decision — and with all of our behaviors afterwards. We simply must be consistently, authentically, unwaveringly tender-hearted with people if we hope to lead effectively. It’s the only way to get things done and to do so with integrity over time.
When we master this delicate balance between being tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people, we are modeling the conduct we expect from everyone in the organization. We expect hard work. We expect courteousness. And, we pledge to work hard and be courteous ourselves. Kindness begets kindness, trust begets trust, and hard work begets hard work. It’s a virtuous circle that makes everyone better. And that’s why it’s our job as leaders to champion the hard and soft edge, simultaneously, in everything we do. So go forth — work hard, be kind, and make amazing things happen.