Have you ever heard of benevolent leadership? I did. According to my findings, it seems to be a movement that was created to counteract the traditional way of managing people. I couldn’t find any official approach or behaviour, it is simply adopted by people who wish to take a more human approach with their colleagues. As you can imagine, I naturally relate to this movement.
The traditional way to manage people is easily identifiable. In a traditional context, people are generally called “resources” just like chairs and printers would be. Sometimes, they are referred to as “assets” and even “human capital”. If they are assets, why don’t we sell them to get some money and increase stability? Oh, you can’t and shouldn’t sell people? Well, the benevolent leader believes that we shouldn’t treat people like objects of numbers.
Now that we defined what a benevolent leader is, let’s dig a little deeper discuss the benefits and disadvantages of benevolent leadership.
The benefits of benevolent leadership
The benevolent leader is appreciated
For leaders who don’t care much about power and prefer to be appreciated by being of service to others, this is the main advantage.
We all had, in one job or another, a boss who was feared by everyone. How was that going for you? Did you ever invite him for a drink? Did you ever tell him about your awesome weekend? Would you have gone to him if you needed help with a personal problem? Asking these question is pretty much answering them. The benevolent leader will experience these things. He isn’t feared. People trust him.
Employees love their job
Let’s be honest here: 80% of people who resign actually leave their manager. It happens less to benevolent managers. Without surprise, people enjoy being treated as human beings in their workplace. They like that how they feel and what they aspire to aren’t inconveniences but something to be considered when making decisions.
I know it may seem super obvious the more I repeat it: people don’t like being treated like objects or cattle… However, I assure you that it happens every day, even in the best organizations. Let’s not forget this.
Employees feel safer
A benevolent leader will generally adopt a growth mindset and focus much more on the lessons learned after a failure than the failure itself. This leaves more room for learning and continuous improvement. The benevolent leader creates a psychologically safe environment for his employees.
The benevolent leader knows to show and leverage his imperfect and vulnerable human side. He makes mistakes too and isn’t afraid to talk about it openly. What’s good for leaders is good for others as well, so he leads by example.
The benevolent leader can create ambassadors for the organization
“Wow! I’d really love to have bosses like yours”. Does this ring a bell?
It is likely that some employees will try to have their friends hired in the place because their managers are using a more human approach, and they like it. You might even observe situations where candidates who were interviewed (and might not have been chosen for a position) will refer someone to your organization. I’m not inventing anything, as I lived it myself.
Treating people in a proper manner isn’t only the right thing to do, it also gives you a serious advantage over your competitors. People will talk about you in a very positive way, and others will want to come and work with you. Isn’t it refreshing?
Employees volunteer to do their work
And this happens primarily because the benevolent leaders generally have the reflex to include their colleagues in the decision-making process. People who feel included and know they can participate at any time will see themselves as actors in their work, not victims of it.
Victims tend to wait for someone to give them something to work on since they already accepted their faith: they have nothing to say, can’t choose what to work on, and can’t suggest anything… Those who are actors of their work aren’t doing it “because they were told to”. They do it because they have been given the opportunity to want it, to believe in it and to make a difference and have an impact on their product or clients.
The disadvantages of benevolent leadership
Making difficult decisions seems… more difficult
Benevolent managers are still managers, and they too will have difficult decisions to make from time to time. Letting someone go, for instance, is sometimes necessary and it will probably feel it’s in contradiction with their management style.
Even if, according to a lot of people, there isn’t a good way to let someone go, there is always a way to make it more human. How? I’m not even sure of this myself, and it always depends on who we’re dealing with. One must also trust his feelings.
At any rate, one shouldn’t forget that a difficult decision must sometimes be made for the common good. And one must not forget about those who remain. It’s worth the effort to ask them how they feel in regards to the decision and if they have any apprehensions or questions.
It is difficult to keep everyone happy at once
Of course, wishing for everyone’s happiness isn’t a bad thing. The problem occurs when one hesitates to make a difficult decision out of fear of displeasing someone. Don’t forget that what you don’t do will often have more impact than what you do. At this moment, things that would normally be intolerable will sometimes become (wrongfully) tolerable. By wishing not to displease a person in particular, one can end up with a whole team that’s unsatisfied, and thus disengaged.
Sometimes, as stated in the previous point, one must make a choice. I’d rather have 9 people whose morale is at 9/10 and one whose morale is at 4/10 (and maybe it’s a symptom that’s worth investigating further) rather than have 10 people whose morale is at 5 or 6/10.
Benevolent leaders sometimes need to support decisions that contradict their values
The benevolent manager will often have a manager himself, who can also (or not) be benevolent, and who also has to make difficult decisions.
It will so happen that he won’t agree with a solution but will need to support it. It can prove extremely difficult, especially when it creates a conflict of personal values. In a traditional setting, this is pretty commonplace. In a benevolent environment, it will generate more waves and thinking.
I won’t pretend to have a solution for this. One must show transparency and have the courage to have discussions concerning the disagreement, and adopt a growth mindset: how can we reach a state where we are better aligned?
The benevolent leader can be perceived as “weak”
Especially to the fans of traditional management. Those who are more directive, and have no problem sleeping well after taking decisions that will turn other people’s lives upside down. Those who stand firm on their position of authority. For those people, taking a benevolent stance can rhyme with weakness, and suggest a lack of managerial courage. You know what? I think it’s a good thing.
Would a benevolent leader prefer to be perceived as a heartless person? Would he really be comfortable with being good at firing people? I think benevolent leaders will be able to accept the perceptions that come with their management style, even if it isn’t universally popular. After all, leadership is not about the leader, but about those he cares for and looks after. If his team is happy and performing, the leader’s reputation isn’t really that important…
Owner of Primos Populi, partner and coach at Moabi. As a former manager, I prefer to use a “people first, the rest will follow” kind of approach. My favorite topics are organizational culture, safe work environments, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process. I cultivate people’s awesomeness.