Beyond Iowa Nice:  How to lead effectively without losing Midwestern values.

I am fortunate to work in America’s Heartland, where we have a reputation for being nice.  Midwesterners are often pegged as hard-working, courteous, helpful and friendly. This makes me proud.  And while you’ll find a few “bad apples” wherever you go, for the most part, I agree with this characterization.

But what does being “Iowa-nice” mean for leaders and the way they manage their teams? In other words, can you lead effectively without being a jerk?

As I have worked with leaders and organizations, I think there is a misperception that if leaders are nice it compromises their leadership abilities.  Some people believe if leaders are nice, they cannot be effective.  I believe the most effective leaders are those individuals who take on the challenging role of leadership while still being a nice person.  

Leaders can be nice and tackle tough issues

I was once part of a performance conversation where a highly talented professional was being considered for a promotion.  While discussing this individual, one of the senior leaders commented “I’m not sure they will be effective, they seem too nice.”  

Probing this a bit, I found the real concern was this individual would not tackle the tough decisions they would face in this role.  No evidence existed to support this conclusion; it was just an assumed limitation of their personality.  Unfair.    

In the end, we put the individual in the role and they excelled.  They made tough calls, they tackled difficult issues and guess what…they were still nice.  

Nice people can make tough decisions.  As leaders, we are expected to make hard calls.  That comes with the job.  Be careful to not assume that because individuals are nice they cannot, or will not, take on tough issues.  One is a behavior and the other is an attribute.  They are not mutually exclusive.  

Leaders can be nice and ensure accountability

Many times, the perception is that if you are nice, you will be a pushover.  I understand that some leaders strive for likeability.  We all want to be liked.  That is human nature.  The reality is that if the leader’s goal is to be liked, they WILL be branded a pushover and therefore probably not liked by many.  

On the other hand, if the goal is to be nice, you can create an environment where it is possible to be liked and respected.  It is important to not confuse the desire to be liked with the desire to be nice.  

People want to work for nice leaders.  These are the leaders who care about their employees, want to see them be successful and treat them kindly.  Effective leaders (and nice leaders) know how to set clear expectations, establish boundaries and ensure accountability.  They realize that this earns them respect and generates results and they don’t have to compromise their personality to achieve it.  

Leaders can be nice and work through conflict

Another misperception is that nice leaders don’t like conflict.  Well who does?  Not liking conflict is different than not dealing effectively with it.  Part of a leader’s role is working through conflict.  Some of the nicest people I have worked with are the most effective at building rapport, finding middle ground, being objective and listening.  These are critical skills in conflict resolution.

Conflict is inevitable and will happen whether you are a nice leader or a jerk.  Effective leaders handle dissenting opinions in a productive way, while still being nice.

Nice leaders finish first

Bottom line, it is possible to be a nice person and be an effective leader.   Those leaders who take on challenging issues, ensure accountability and work through conflict while being nice….well, they are your shining stars!  

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