I think we’re pretty much beyond the days of executives having free reign to be a jerk at work. That’s a good thing, and I believe in most workplaces, the vast majority of people display a basic level of courtesy. They’re nice.
As a leader, though, your job is to enable and empower your team members to succeed, and you can’t always do that by only being nice. In fact, only being nice makes you a rather useless and uninspiring leader.
I always like to consider the spinach test: if someone has a big chunk of spinach in their teeth, would you tell them?
The nice thing to do is keep quiet, because the exchange will make the person uncomfortable (despite your true motivation likely being to avoid the discomfort yourself). The kind thing to do, however, is to tell them. You’ll both share an awkward few seconds of discomfort, they’ll take care of the spinach, and now you’ve set them up for a better rest of the day.
Sometimes you’ll have to tell a team member he has spinach in his teeth, because he can’t recognize it for himself and will be in for tough sledding if he doesn’t correct it. Sometimes, you’ll have to tell your peer or boss or board member that she has spinach in her teeth, because your team will need to know that you support them and have their backs. The ladder is probably even harder than the former, but you simply can’t be a great leader if you aren’t willing to have uncomfortable conversations from time to time, at all levels of an org chart (not just downward).
And when tension springs up, which it’s bound to from time to time with our pesky human emotions, it’s your job as the higher-ranking person to build the bridge to smooth it over.
The nice person will simply avoid all of this and ride the wave of blissful ignorance for as long as possible. The kind person will confront spinach problems head on and become comfortable with temporary discomfort in the spirit of being inspiring and supportive. In doing so, they’ll also welcome anyone and everyone to offer their own spinach-themed feedback.