Pinky Lilani CBE, author and entrepreneur, explains why kindness is the greatest leadership quality
Pinky Lilani CBE tells Ryan Herman why kind leadership could be the key to stemming the Great Resignation and why she took her wok to Whitehall
In 2018, Kindness and Leadership published the first of its annual 50 Leading Lights lists in the Financial Times. Since then, it has featured such leaders as Unilever CEO Alan Jope, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and Darshna Patel, from Health Education England, who led the first Covid-19 vaccination centre to open in a Hindu temple.
The list was created by Pinky Lilani CBE, an entrepreneur, author and keynote speaker who also founded the Women of the Future Programme and the Asian Women of Achievement Awards. In 2020, Lilani wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph, “Kindness is the key to workplace success in our post-Covid world”, built around a survey commissioned by Women of the Future and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. The survey revealed that “nearly three in five global workers (58%) believe the kind actions taken by their company during Covid-19 has made them want to stay longer than originally planned”.
“The greatest human craving is to be appreciated,” says Lilani. “People want to work in teams where they feel they are contributing.” Indeed, earlier this year, a Sloan MIT Review article explained that toxic culture was one of the prime movers behind what has become known as the Great Resignation. There were record numbers of people changing employers in most western economies in 2021, with almost one million moving job between July and September in the UK alone, according to the Labour Force Survey.
Lilani adds: “Somebody once told me that when leaders are kind they go from being successful to significant, and that being significant is their legacy. When we think about how we want others to see us, we talk about this in terms of eulogy virtues and résumé virtues. A lot of young people focus on résumé virtues – your skills and talents – but I want to tell them, however old you are, think also of your eulogy virtues, such as integrity, compassion, kindness, humility… I think they are undervalued.”
Lilani’s many years extolling the virtues of compassion in leadership have put her ahead of the curve. Kindness has now become an asset.
Lilani was born in Kolkata in 1954. She graduated with a degree in education and English, then came to the UK in 1978 where she gained diplomas in management studies and marketing. She also took exception to the pervasive stereotypes of the housebound Muslim wife catering to a husband who ran a corner shop – far from true of her and her spouse. In fact, while Lilani’s kitchen skills were, she says, unremarkable, her entrepreneurial skills were exceptional – and she became a successful, self-taught chef, publishing her first cookery book in 2001 and promoting it with in-store demonstrations.
Her experience of countering people’s expectations had already inspired her to start the Asian Women of Achievement Awards in 1999, to celebrate and give a platform to those making a difference in all walks of life. “It was an idea I had one day sitting at my kitchen table,” she recalls. “Then we had Cherie Blair turning up to the first awards event in a sari. What struck me was the power of what happens when you bring people together and give them access to individuals they wouldn’t otherwise meet.”
In 2006, she started the Women of the Future Awards, which has similar objectives, but for a younger demographic. Underpinning it all is Lilani’s conviction that people from different backgrounds, generations and cultures have something to offer each other. You just need to find the tools to make the connections happen.
“When we were judging the Asian Women of Achievement Awards, I picked up on the work being done by Dr Pavani Cherukupally,” says Lilani. “She is part of a team at Imperial College London that has invented a sponge that will soak up oil, toxins, bacteria and pollutants from water. In 2007, at our first Women of the Future awards, one of the winners was Liv Garfield. Ten years later, she became the youngest female CEO of a FTSE 100 company as head of Severn Water. So I’ve put them in touch with each other.
“We’re building what I like to think of as a community of leaders, and the DNA of that community is kindness. We don’t want it to be transactional, where people come and think, ‘Oh, wow, somebody senior is here, I can do some business with them.’”
The awards and programmes also promote diversity and inclusion. When many talk about this, however, the focus is usually on gender and race. Lilani is keen to highlight another section of society that is often overlooked in the company strategies.
A report published in 2020 by the Return on Disability Group revealed that while 90% of the companies surveyed claim to prioritise diversity, only 4% consider disability in their initiatives. Whenever Lilani meets new people or gives a talk to a new audience she is upfront about her own problems. “Twenty years ago I began to lose my hearing,” she says. “It was disturbing and frightening. I’m a very social person. I lived in hope that it would come back, that maybe it was a virus. But it is a degenerative condition.
“Back then hearing aids weren’t very good. My brain had to adjust to that. Now, having a conversation like this, on Zoom, I can use Bluetooth. I used to sit on the council of a big organisation and there were 14 members and I found I couldn’t hear some of them. Now I only go to meetings with small numbers of people.”
She adds, “We need to make people feel confident enough, courageous enough to say ‘I have a disability’ and not be made to feel vulnerable. We need to be conscious of disabilities that aren’t visibly obvious. I feel a lot of people, even older people, don’t like saying they have a disability because it means they may feel inferior.”
Lilani’s talks are built around the theme of kindness, but there is another reason why she is so in demand as a speaker. “People love creativity, innovation and drama,” she says. “Some years ago, I was asked by the University of Cambridge Judge Business School to be a speaker for their Global Leaders lecture. They had the head of Barclays the week before, whereas I was running a small company. Why would a bunch of MBA students want to hear me speak? So I said, ‘Can I bring my wok?’”
Have wok, will travel: it could be Lilani’s watchword ever since. She often addresses an audience while making her signature dish of Bombay potatoes. “You may say where’s the connection between cooking and leadership? But you need fresh ingredients, passion, sometimes you need to turn up the heat... I love it because nobody else does it. And hopefully, people remember that.”
In the week leading up to our meeting, Lilani gave four talks, including one on behalf of the Foreign Office to 175 Chevening scholars, beneficiaries of a programme that funds foreign students with leadership qualities to study at universities. And yes, she took her wok to Whitehall.
At 68, she shows no signs of letting up and is currently focused on a new Women of the Future project that celebrates 50 women leaders under the age of 35 setting the pace in one of the most pivotal areas of modern business – ESG. “Two years ago I didn’t know what ESG even meant,” she says. “But when the idea of doing something around sustainability came up, it was suggested that what we should be promoting are leaders in environmental, social and governance.”
It will be supported by a campaign to “demystify ESG, translate it to a wider audience and celebrate the women who are driving progress”, she explains. “We want to have men as part of that narrative,” she adds. Lord Darroch, formerly the British Ambassador to the US, is one of the judges, while the headline sponsors include Tesco, Burberry and PwC.
“When we held that first awards event in 1999, I had no vision to go beyond that,” she says. “But I’m also very impatient, so when I have an idea I want to run with it. For Women of the Future, we took a delegation to south-east Asia, to fly the flag for Britain. While we were in Malaysia, people said, ‘Why don’t you bring the awards here?’ Nine months later it happened.”
Although she has a nagging fear that companies will revert to the old ways of management, Lilani has been right about the value of kindness. In a world that can often seem incredibly complex, her philosophy is simple but effective.
She concludes by recalling Aldous Huxley’s words towards the end of his career, much of which was devoted to speculating about the future of society. “People often ask me what is the most effective technique for transforming their life,” the writer and philosopher said. “It’s a little embarrassing that after years and years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder.”