Can a Leader Care Too Much?

The title to this post comes from a question I was asked after my last post. The quick answer is NO, a leader can’t care too much.

The complete answer is a whole lot longer and far more complicated. I don’t believe that an authentic leader can care too much, they can’t “over care” and it’s wrong to suggest that it’s not possible to excel as a leader when you “care too much.” 

Now, here’s where it gets complicated. While you can’t care too much. caring a lot can cause an inexperienced leader to underperform. They use caring to substitute for coaching and accountability. They can have the mistaken belief that they can’t both care about and confront or coach a team member at the same time. 

Let me give you a couple of examples. I have been fortunate to work for some very caring people. One was perhaps one of the nicest people I have ever met. There was never a doubt that he cared about his people. He said it and he showed it often. Absolutely 100% of his coaching comments were positive, in several years of working for him there was never any corrective action or changes suggested. 

I wish I could tell you I was that good, I was not. His caring personality got in the way of true leading. He allowed me to drift and develop some poor habits. While I was comfortable and enjoyed working for him, I didn’t grow.  

My experience with this leader is not uncommon. Lots of people work for a leader they would describe as “the nicest person” or as a person “who really cares”. That’s great but as important as caring is, caring alone does not make you a leader. 

To be an authentic leader you must use your caring nature to coach, motivate and nurture your people. Sometimes that will mean having a difficult conversation with them. Which leads me to the second example.

Many of you know that for several years I worked with the Dale Carnegie organization. The person I reported to cared about me as a person, I never doubted that. He also held me accountable and coached the heck out of me. He used nearly every principle from “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to do it in a way that motivated me to improve. 

I was motivated to improve because it was the right thing to do but more than that, I was motivated to improve “for” that leader because I knew his coaching came with my best interests in mind. 

Good leaders care enough to show it and great leaders care enough to show it and make the extra effort to coach anyway. It will take a bit more effort to confront and coach in a compassionate way so that your caring nature is not lost in the process. 

Authentic leaders know that the very best way to show you care is to help your people succeed. 

Make no mistake about this: caring is no substitute for accountability and coaching. If you care so much for people that you just can’t hold them accountable and help them reach their full potential then you might be a great person but you’re probably not a great leader.

Care AND coach to make a difference that lasts! 

16 thoughts on “Can a Leader Care Too Much?

  1. Another great post Steve.

    I had a couple of tweets on truth-tellers today and one I almost tweeted had to do with kindness and dishonesty that sort of ties in to what you are saying about how it’s great to be a kind and caring leader, but it also requires some honesty and integrity. (Not only leaders but also employees and people in general)

    ‘In the end, how much does kindness matter if it wasn’t also the truth?’

    Kindness without honesty is enabling. It ventures into the land of codependency (I’ve written a post on this) and can happen for many reasons. Fear of conflict. Being a people pleaser. (caring too much for what people think instead of doing what is in the best interests of people/situation) Or it can also be due to being intentionally manipulative. Using kindness to exploit situations and people.

    You have so many good points here, you know I’d take up too much space here if I commented on all of them. : )

    One additional thought on this as I can struggle with this off and on at times. No, we can’t care too much yet sometimes we neglect caring in ‘partnership’ with our people. Our caring can be wasted effort, time, and energy if we don’t also find out what ‘kind/type’ of caring our people needs. How do they best feel cared for? Just because I may have a heart that spills over with love/care/concern for people doesn’t necessarily mean it serves the other person in the most productive and effective way.

    It really does take personalized communication and intentional attention to find out and learn how best to serve people while also acting with enough integrity to keep each other accountable.

    Many facets to ponder and reflect on.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • That’s a great point, we “see” caring differently and unless we, as leaders, are willing to discover our team members caring “language” we might completely mess it up.

      Leaders invest the time to really know their people, if we don’t know how to care for someone it’s going to be pretty tough for them to know we care.

  2. John Halloran says:

    Steve. Thanks! I worked for a guy 35 years ago that gave me my first sales job. I could never put a finger on why it did not work better. I worked for him for 10 years and he was a great boss, I thought. He cared for me too much. I am still very friendly with him and we reach out to each other 6-8 times a year since I left that company. He cared too much. Coaching and breaking me of bad habits were not his strength. I want a do over!

  3. Unfortunately, many “leaders” believe if you care too much, you’ll look weak.

    They think you have to be forceful and invincible.

    What they don’t understand is, followers want to be led by a human beings.

    Real people have flaws. They’re not perfect. They’re vulnerable.

    If you come across as the leader who can do no wrong, your followers will be afraid to take chances. Afraid they’ll make a mistake. Afraid they’ll fail. Afraid they won’t measure up to the perfect leader.

    • Great point Steve, part of being an “authentic” leader is actually being authentic.

      Allowing our mistakes to be exposed allows our people to take a risk and possibly fail. Then an authentic leader helps them learn from the failure and from that comes growth and progress.

  4. I can so relate to this post in terms of my own client work. I have worked with many leaders who do care deeply about their employees (aka, having a sense of family) that starts to cross the line into over caring.

    In my experience, the reason why so many caring leaders have a hard time holding employees accountable is that it is a values conflict issue. Caring/sense of family being one value; the other is business results. Values conflicts happen because of the leader’s internal modal of the world that keeps them in the “either/or” mindset trap.

    The solution is to breakdown the mental association with each value to get them to a place of how to do both.

  5. Paul Walters says:

    I thought your article was great. I followed a great leader who was viewed as distant and uncaring. I was chief of police for over 23 years and I came up through the ranks, I tried to never forget what it was like working night shift, being away from the family on every holiday and having to deal with people at their worst. I would make sure that I spent time in the field with them to remind them that I cared and to personally see and to keep up with the latest in crime trends and problem areas. If you don’t already do it, I highly encourage every caring leader to get down in the trenches with your employees, not to do their job or to take over the supervisior’s role, but to stay IN TOUCH AND remember what it is like in their shoes. It can keep you from getting the “Ivory Tower” mentality and you appreciate what they do more than you realize. The world is constantly changing and the leader more than any one should know firsthand what his employees are dealing with daily. I can recite story after story of high ranking leaders who were well intended but had lost touch with the day to day activities of their employees. I recently retired and all of the employees that I run into, without asking, tell me how much they miss me for being the leader who made them the best of the best by caring and leading in a way that they could follow with confidence. I am most surprised that how little things can make such a huge difference with your employees. I knew it from my education and training but the employee remarks and complements have been overwhelming.

    Paul Walters
    Chief of Police(ret)

    • Thanks Paul, it’s sounds like you are the kind of leader who truly makes a difference. For leaders like you who care their impact extends past their days of active leading.

      Because you cared enough to show it your influence is still felt, that’s why the good comments keep coming.

      Congrats on being the kind of leader we need more of and thanks again for sharing your experience.

  6. Jeff Kirkpatrick says:

    I agree with the premise of your article and with many of the comments that followed. I too am a retired COP; but I will never forget the moment as a new Sergeant when I realized “the Emperor realy has no clothes!” Yes you can care so much about your folks that your caring interferes with their development. As a leader (regardless of your position within your organizaiton), you must recognize when “your clothes are invisible vs. when they’re not.” In other words, remember where you came from; remember the mistakes you made matriculating through your career; remember how to walk in their shoes; and most importantly, remember that it is YOUR DUTY as a leader to take the time to divorce from your caring from time to time and mentor, cajole, coach, scold, push, and make the tough decisions necessary to help the very people you love, to progress and matriculate to be the best they can be.

    …Jeff Kirkpatrick, Chief of Police – Retired

    • Absolutely correct Jeff! If a leader truly cares enough to provide coaching, sometimes very difficult coaching, they can help improve a person’s life forever. Many “leaders” do indeed care, just not enough to care AND coach.

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