One day my mentor told me: “You have to choose, Stan. You can either be a nice guy, or you can be a leader.”

Wow. That was quite a line in the sand.

Internally I thought, "Surely there is a third option here.”

That incident was over a decade ago, but I still reflect on it, especially while pursuing PhD research in leadership studies. Now that I'm writing my dissertation and serving as a school administrator, I'd like to revisit that line in the sand.

First, I'm guilty as charged. Yes, I am a self-admitted nice-guy. Though I’m not an excessively extroverted "people person," I do value people and relationships. I seem to be blessed (cursed?) with an empathy that feels other people's pain. So how does a leader with nice-guy-itus lead effectively? I suggest a mixture of knowledge and action. First, know your core values. Next, know your organization’s values. Third, deal with conflicting values. Finally, give appropriate feedback.  Let’s consider these four items in more detail.

Know Your Core Values

And yes, being a nice guy is going to be one of those core values. Personally, I can't get past the whole Golden Rule thing. Because I am empathetic to people, when I cause them pain it pains me as well. So treating them gently is for my sake as much as theirs (so I’m nice and selfish at the same time). But thankfully being nice is only one value among many. Other values include an appreciation for truth and a desire for excellence. If I have to choose between truth and comfort, truth wins. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, when we seek comfort over truth, we end up with neither truth nor comfort.

For Christ-followers and other "nice guys," one core-value is often "servant leadership." You say you want to be a servant leader? Great! But understand that servant leadership does not equate with martyr leadership. If the relationship between you and your organization means you constantly give and your organization never gives anything in return, you are on a one-way trip to burnout (or worse). Robert Greenleaf's book Servant Leadership makes two particular observations about servant leaders that I often repeat to myself: 

First, servant leadership begins with the desire to serve. Although there are often perks that go along with leadership, the desire for those perks is not the primary motivator for servant leadership.

Next, servant leaders both serve and are served by society. Servant leadership should not be confused with martyr leadership. Yes, servant leaders give of their resources, but that giving is not a one way relationship. If you constantly make sacrifices for your organization and receive nothing in return, you are on a one-way trip to burn-out, or something worse.

Know Your Organization’s Purpose

To be an effective leader in any organization, your core values and the organization's purpose must overlap. By the way, this is where mission statements can be helpful, but only if they actually mean something. Mission statements full of -ing and -tion words may be completely empty of content. Does your organization's mission statement move you to action? If not, why not?

The reason you need the overlap between personal and organizational values is because sometimes your “nice-guy” values will be in direct contrast to pursuing your organization’s mission. As a “nice guy,” I don’t like giving failing grades. I work hard to help students pass my courses. However, if they never turn in an assignment, my desire for education and excellence demands that I give them a failing grade, especially if we claim to be a "college preparatory" school. And I must do this even at the risk of a confrontation with a parent (another thing nice-guy educators don’t like). Likewise at home, my spouse will tell you that I am peace-loving, but she will also admit that I can become confrontational when I feel our family is not choosing to pursue excellence.