Can Niceness and Firmness Coexist?

“If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.” – Francis Bacon

While channel-surfing recently, I happened to catch a glimpse of Tony Dungy sitting on the sidelines during a football game. Dungy, of course, is the coach of last year’s Super Bowl champs, the Indianapolis Colts. It crossed my mind that rarely does a coach in professional sports have the majority of fans rooting more for him than for his team, but there’s no question that this has been the case with Dungy for many years.

Dungy and his Baltimore Colts – oops, I mean Indianapolis Colts (still haven’t gotten over the Colts’ middle-of-the night escape from Baltimore in 1984) – are off to another great start, and only the three-time-champion New England Patriots appear to stand in the way of their winning a second straight Super Bowl.

You don’t have to meet Dungy personally to know that he’s a genuinely nice guy. Your television screen doesn’t lie. Dungy is soft-spoken, respectful, and gracious in both victory and defeat. He sums up his nice-guy philosophy simply by saying, “If you’re prepared, you don’t have to yell and scream.”

Now, compare Dungy to the legendary Leo Durocher. Durocher was the in-your-face manager of the New York Giants when Bobby Thomson hit his “shot-heard-round-the-world” pennant-winning homerun against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. He was one of the most quotable characters in baseball history, and will always be remembered as the person who said “Nice guys finish last.”

Durocher’s quote has become part of the American lexicon because many people believe it to be true. But is it? Is Tony Dungy an anomaly? Are nice guys destined to fare poorly in life? Does it take a boorish personality to succeed?

There’s no question that some of the most successful people in our culture have been bombastic, egotistical, cold-hearted, and/or just plain nasty. Coaches are perhaps the most notorious examples in this respect – Bobby Knight, Woody Hayes, and Bill Parcells are just a few of the names that come to mind.

In business, Donald Trump is the poster boy for nastiness. And in the media world, broadcasters such as Katie Couric and Dan Rather have never seemed to be able to hide their snarls, even while on camera.

Now, here’s the good news: Being mean-spirited is not a mandatory component of success. We know this to be true, because plenty of nice guys have succeeded on a big scale. In this regard, two people whom I have had the pleasure of knowing come to mind.

One is Hugh Downs, 86 years young and still living life to the fullest. In all my dealings with Hugh, I have found him to be a gracious, polite, and kind man. It’s no wonder he has appeared on television more than any other person in history.

Ditto the late Merv Griffin. I was a guest on Merv’s talk show twice, and, as with Downs, it’s no surprise to me that his popularity stood the test of time. When he interviewed me, I felt like he was genuinely interested in what I was saying.

I won’t deny that many obnoxious people become successful. But don’t be misled into believing that their turn-off personalities are responsible for their success. In truth, success is separate and apart from one’s disposition.

What determines your degree of success is how well you execute the basics – like being prepared… your willingness to stick your neck out and take bold action… paying attention to detail… and finding opportunities in perceived problems.

The primary reason for embracing positive personality traits such as calmness, graciousness, humility, and kindness is to enjoy the mental rewards of such intangibles as peace of mind, self-esteem, and self-respect. If you’re going to succeed, why not feel good about yourself in the process? And, as a bonus, you might just experience less stress and live a longer and healthier life.

We should always keep in mind that we tend to attract people who are most like us. And surrounding yourself with a cadre of Tony Dungys makes life a whole lot more enjoyable than having to deal with a bunch of Leo Durochers day in and day out. So, the reality is that attracting decent people into your life begins with you.

One last point: Being nice does not mean that you have to let people take advantage of you. On the contrary, the ideal is a combination of niceness and firmness. I bring this up because I believe that many people think they have to be pushovers in their business and personal lives in order to be liked.

Nothing could be further from the truth. People will like you if you’re thoughtful and polite, which is a good thing for both you and them. But, at the same time, they will also respect you if you are firm when it comes to doing what is in your best interests and sticking with your decisions.

In other words, being a good guy and being tough are not mutually exclusive objectives. It’s just as easy to say no in a calm way, with a smile on your face, as it is to say it with a scowl. And why not make life easy?

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