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Kindness equals Weakness? An Old World logic we must dispel


Nicole Sparshott, Unilever Australia and New Zealand CEO

Picture of a sunflower in a field

I love sunflowers; they are my favourite flower. No matter what the weather, even in the most turbulent of storms, a sunflower will turn its gorgeous yellow face to try to find the sun.

There is a lesson from nature right there – that leaning towards optimism can be like balm soothing the bruises felt from the many curve balls thrown our way. I am not talking about the kind of positivity that fails to adequately to recognise the reality of the here and now. Rather, the kind that, in spite of the challenges - the ambiguity, the fear - chooses to reframe what is possible to make things better. A little like offering an empathetic mirror to today and simultaneously showing a window to a stronger tomorrow.

Resilience is not about adapting at all costs or ‘dusting yourself off’ from any hit that comes your way. It is about knowing what you can and cannot control, focusing efforts and energy on where you can have the greatest impact.

Care and compassion in business has been a massively underrated currency for too long. There is a misconception that kindness equals weakness. It is an Old World logic if ever there was one. Jacinda Ardern has previously articulated this:

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

It is absolutely possible to be both the stretch and the safety net all in one move. You can be a high performer and a decent human being always – there is no role, anywhere, that precludes that reality. It’s a duality that’s not only possible, but essential.

We are living in a paradoxical world and the landscape has never required the management of duality more than ever before – in business, in government and in the community. Safety and economy; productivity and wellbeing; sustainability and profit; online offline; today and tomorrow. It is not sufficient to only do one well; the inconvenient truth of it all is that we no longer have the luxury of singularity of focus. I am not sure we ever did.

But we also don’t have to do it alone. The power of creating partnerships and shared ecosystems has never been more needed or more accessible. In fact, I would go as far as to say I have felt both an authenticity and a generosity between retailers, suppliers, manufacturers, government, NGOs and industry & community groups in the sharing of experiences and resources more than ever before. That coalition of the willing and able, coming together to serve people and the planet may have finally started to realise its true potential collective impact.

We may have only taken the first few steps…but that is how an Everest climb starts.

Goodness knows we need it to recover in the aftermath of COVID in a manner that leaves no-one behind. And to address other challenges like climate change, human rights and equality and inclusion. I recently heard someone explain the difference between bravery and courage; when you are brave, you charge in fearlessly. When you are courageous, you feel the fear and do it anyway.

When I reflect on the organisations that I am part of - Unilever and T2, and in a non-executive role at WWF-Australia and Global Sisters - courage has been there in spades. Heard in the ideas raised by previously quiet voices; seen in the decisions taken with imperfect information; felt in the offering of help in areas outside of comfort zones; echoed in the innovative thinking and doing at a time when it would be easy to wrap ourselves around the status quo and feel a false safety.

I have two children and a number of god-children. They are a remarkable source of insight and perspective, living in the art of possibility. There is a reason children always win the structural marshmallow challenge – where various groups including engineers, scientists, designers, academics, CEOs and five year old kids are tasked with building the tallest freestanding tower in 20 minutes using some spaghetti, yarn and a marshmallow. Kids collaborate, iterate, listen to each other, and rarely jockey for power. They don’t need perfectly laid out plans; they learn through doing.

As adults we need to get way more comfortable prototyping. If we think too much, we convince ourselves of why something won’t work, more often than why it could. Our bias is risk aversion, our brains want to protect us. We need to be more open to shift to a new way of thinking. Listening and learning as we go, and giving others the space to do the same.

There is an Elvis Presley track famous for encouraging “A little less conversation, a little more action”. I wonder if today, there could be benefit in the reverse - a little more conversation, a little more active listening - to ensure our actions are well founded. I believe, that if we can continue to show generosity, partnership, caring leadership; if we can continue to reap benefits from doing things more creatively, more intuitively, more compassionately, we may unlock more of the sunflower in all of us – our feet firmly on the ground whilst seeking out the brighter spots in a bluer sky.

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