The gentle manager

I’ve been ruminating on one of Henri Nouwen’s daily meditations for a few days now.  While Nouwen was writing (I suppose) for a general audience, my thoughts have been focussing on the world of management.

When he writes …

“Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count.”

… it’s easy to see how this is a fitting description for much that happens in our workplaces.

But Nouwen advocates a different model:

“Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something. A gentle person treads lightly, listens carefully, looks tenderly, and touches with reverence. A gentle person knows that true growth requires nurture, not force. Let’s dress ourselves with gentleness. In our tough and often unbending world our gentleness can be a vivid reminder of the presence of God among us.”

My thoughts lead me to conclude that this should be the norm for management.  We should be encouraging growth through nurturing; we should be listening attentively and treating others with respect; in a nutshell, we should be gentle.

I realise that some people reading this, including some of my colleagues, will scoff and dismiss gentleness as weak and wishy-washy.  But I’m equally aware of others who demonstrate the strength (and performance gains) contained within this approach.  The best managers that I have worked for, and with, had the quality of gentleness.

By drawing on collective strengths, rather than the views of a dominant individual, our capacity and potential increase dramatically; by listening carefully to what is said (and not said), the vision of an organisation can be enhanced; by having willing workers – and followers – the success of any organisation will improve.

Of course, there is a price to pay.  To be a gentle manager, you have to learn to control yourself, and learn to stop trying (and probably failing) to control others.


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