Growing up, I heard a lot about strength. My dad -- a Holocaust survivor -- embodied it, though he would never say that about himself. Not only did he survive one of the most horrific events in history, but he never lost hope along the way, crediting acts of kindness with keeping him alive. He used to tell one particular story involving a German soldier throwing a potato at him in one of his darkest hours. Though he could have been punished, that soldier had the strength to be kind, which sustained my dad for one more day.
Fast forward to today. As a society, we're failing to recognize something my dad knew to be true -- that kindness is the greatest show of strength. Too often, we are led to believe that strength is best demonstrated by exerting dominance or superiority over others, while kindness is portrayed as the opposite -- a sign of weakness. Even the dictionary defines strength as "power" or "force." You don't have to look far to find examples of people manifesting strength through crude words or harmful actions -- it's happening everywhere, from professional sports to corporate America to the entertainment industry and even our children's playgrounds. In sports, some athletes show strength on the playing field and in the locker room by disrespecting opponents and, at times, teammates. In the workplace, leaders can be seen talking down to team members, afraid that if they show empathy or humility they will be perceived as a pushover. Similarly, the entertainment industry promotes strength in ways that perpetuate gender stereotypes. Such stereotypes have seeped into our children's schools and playgrounds, where kids are bullying one another verbally and physically. As a dad of four, I've witnessed this firsthand.
How can we raise the next generation under these false pretenses of strength? What will happen if our children start to view kindness as weakness? How do we, through our words and actions, show that it takes courage to be kind? I find myself having to take pause each day to focus on these issues, so while I recognize it isn't always easy, I also believe it's important we start asking these questions.
To achieve a shift in thinking, we have to challenge deeply rooted misconceptions that are being reinforced throughout business and society. The reality is that corporate America tends to be a reflection of society and society is often imbalanced, which means today's business leaders have a responsibility to poke holes in cultural norms until equilibrium is reached. Males, in particular, have to be OK disputing what it means to be masculine. In many cultures, including pockets of the United States, masculinity has long been defined as being tough, rough and macho. Showing warmth, emotion and kindness is consequently discouraged. Of course not all men model their behavior after this definition. My father, who, as you've gathered by now, was the strongest man I've ever known, was also the kindest. He showed emotion daily, hugging and kissing me and my siblings until the day he passed away. But at some point, all men, including my dad and myself, have felt uncomfortable showing our emotions and vulnerabilities.
This needs to change. We can agree that some situations require more courage than others. For instance, if someone is being bullied and we're faced with the decision of whether or not to speak up, it may take an added ounce of strength to choose kindness versus turning a blind eye. It will take even more strength to extend kindness to the bully -- an action that is equally as meaningful. No matter if we're in a contentious situation or simply engaging in an everyday interaction, we should aspire to have the strength to be kind always. If each of us shared this aspiration, we'd all be better off. That's because kindness is a net happiness aggregator -- one of the few forces in nature that can increase the contentment of both the person doing the kind act and the recipient. That's the magic of it.
Beginning today, we can start making a change. This is our world, after all, and we can shape it as we'd like. With some focus and the acceptance that lasting transformation doesn't happen overnight, we can erase predetermined misconceptions -- we can show that it's strong to be kind. It won't be easy -- I know this firsthand. I make mistakes daily, letting generalizations creep into my thoughts and negatively affect my behavior. These mistakes have taught me that the first step to successfully choosing kindness is being more mindful about it, letting go of impatience and intolerance along the way. To take this first step, please consider pledging at strongandkind.com to:
- Have the courage to be kind when others may not