I was recently at a retirement event that got me thinking about what being nice has to do with leadership. Nearly a hundred people had gathered at the elegant University Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. They were celebrating the career of their leader of 14 years, Brian LaCroix, CEO of Allina Health EMS. He was retiring after nearly 40 years of service, first as a volunteer fire fighter, then as an EMT, paramedic, supervisor, manager and ultimately CEO of Allina Health EMS.
As speaker after speaker spoke of Brian’s attributes as a leader, colleague and friend, a theme emerged that no one said directly but which was evident in their stories, and was true in my own experience working with him.
Brian is a genuinely nice guy. He personifies the “Minnesota nice” that sometimes comes off as a joke (it’s even the name of a store in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport) but is really a virtue that isn’t as common in our leaders as it should be.
In my career, first as an editor and then a consultant, I’ve had the good fortune to brush shoulders with many leaders in public safety and health care. Most highly effective leaders have certain attributes in common—vision, drive, ability to communicate and plan, strategize and so on. I’ve gotten to know some of these leaders very well, seeing their private personas as well as public. On reflection, more than a few don’t rate so well in the “nice” category—and so what, don’t “nice guys finish last?”
Organizational psychologists will tell you that “nice” translates to empathy and emotional intelligence, a key attribute of exceptional leaders. In fact, here’s a classic white paper on what research reveals about the “Big Six” attributes of successful leaders. It’s a valuable read, with real insight.
At his retirement celebration, I mentioned to Brian my observation. He told me that a mentor told him something early in his career that always stuck:
“Being a gentleman is good for business.”