The Intent of Kindness

To act in kindness is to help others, not for your own benefit, but solely for theirs. Or so thought Aristotle, one of many social commentators who has professed a view.

Why Kindness Counts

In the context of a reputation economy, i guess that one could take a more cynical view, and say that to act kindly delivers the tangible benefit of reputation, which is increasingly quantified back into more traditional markets. We could effectively claim that ‘kindness pays’, in dollars and pounds. But to act in that way may be to reduce the quality of kindness to mere transaction, and the ‘help’ given to utilitarian, not social.

The ostensible gifting of things, a feature of certain US chat shows (where every audience member walks away with a microwave), and a mainstay of points based reward programmes, is not specifically an act of kindness, although the action may be deemed generous (which equates in some case to kindness). Or to put it another way, we may be unintentionally kind. Or an action that is deemed to be e.g. marketing, may be received in kindness.

But i think that most of us would define, or at least consider, kindness something more ethical and possibly intangible. Perhaps a value that we live by. Perhaps in part it is the intention behind the action: if you gift something, if you are generous with tangible assets, in expectation of reward, then that itself denies you the badge of kindness. Or to put it another way, you may give things away and be kind, but if you transact the very same things in expectation of reputation, you are not being kind. Indeed, you may be being cynical, or manipulative.

In that sense, kindness falls into the category of qualities that are awarded in judgement, not claimed in expectation. So i may act, through whatever imperative, and be judged to be kind, or otherwise.

It is this view, the judgement of kindness, that is perhaps most relevant to consider in the journey and context of Social Leadership: we do not set out to develop a transactional route to reputation, an instruction book for kindness, but rather we curate a space, build our mindset, and take action, that is value led, deeply fair, and continuously reflective. And in doing so, we may be kind.

A place to focus on may be that statement, ‘take action’. If we establish that action itself does not qualify automatically as kindness, then we must beg the question, can you be kind, but not take action? Can kindness be held solely through intent? Or aspiration?

I doubt it: if our intention is to be kind, and our actions are unkind, then in judgement, we are unkind. If our aspiration is to be kind, but our action is selfish, mean spirited, or unfair, then we are not kind. As with any value, holding it alone is not enough.

So perhaps kindness lies in an interplay of intention and action: an intent may inform action (but does not determine it), and action may be deemed to be kind. An imperfect definition, maybe, but possibly workable, at least at some level.

Considering Social Leadership, we can build our awareness of values, and hold an intention to be kind, and we must take action, but not purely transactionally. Which may be a balance so nuanced as to be practically impossible. Indeed, that would not be a wholehearted surprise: kindness may only ever be a thing that we imperfectly aspire to, judged in totality, over time. Certainly that ‘judgement over time’ is a common feature of aspects of the reputation economy.

So you cannot simply intend to be kind, not can you simply act your way to kindness transactionally. It is, perhaps, a striving.

I would not necessarily argue that Organisations can be kind, but they can be led with kindness, and their systems and rules may hold kindness as a value. Certainly, as leaders we can be kind.

I’m also unaware if there is a taxonomy of values: do some count for more than others? But would certainly argue that fairness is a more deeply distributed value e.g. you can always act in fairness, even if you do not actively help someone without expectation of reciprocity. And Organisations can act fairly in all contexts, be that in how they handle their customer service, to the ways they make people redundant. Indeed, in that context, you can be fair, even when taking something away, so long as you treat everyone in an even handed manner. So you could not be fair by making one person redundant, and retaining another, if you made that decision purely on how much you liked that second person.

To be a Social Leader is to act in ways that are deeply fair, and hence thoroughly transparent. And if we are thoughtful, we can act in kindness too. Certainly, we can, and should, strive for that.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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5 Responses to The Intent of Kindness

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