Can Niceness and Firmness Coexist?

Posted on March 20, 2014 by Robert Ringer


Tony Dungy has always fascinated me, so I’m looking forward to reading his new book, Uncommon Marriage: Learning about Lasting Love and Overcoming Life’s Obstacles.  As you are probably aware, Dungy gained national attention when he became the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl — in 2007, with the Indianapolis Colts.

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 that was the case with Dungy when he was the head coach at Tampa Bay, then Indianapolis. You don’t have to meet Dungy personally to know that he’s a genuinely nice person. You know it just by watching how he conducts himself as an analyst for NBC’s Football Night In America.

As a coach, Dungy was soft-spoken, respectful, and gracious in both victory and defeat. He summed up his nice-guy philosophy by saying, “If you’re prepared, you don’t have to yell and scream.” Refreshing, to say the least.

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

It’s a quote that 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, or just plain nasty, and many coaches are notorious examples of this. But here’s the good news: Being nasty is not mandatory to success. We know this to be true, because plenty of nice guys have succeeded on a major scale.

One that comes quickly to mind is Hugh Downs, who, at ninety-three, is still living life to the fullest. In my dealings with Downs, I have always found him to be a gracious, polite, and thoughtful person. It’s no wonder he has appeared on television more than anyone else in history. His viewer-friendly personality is obvious to everyone who has watched him over the years.

Again, I won’t deny that many obnoxious people find a way to become successful. But don’t be misled into believing that their turnoff personalities are responsible for their success. More likely, they have succeeded in spite of their personalities.

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 action … paying attention to details … and the ability to find opportunities in perceived problems … to name but a few examples.

The primary reason for embracing positive personality traits such as self-control, 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. Thus, the reality is that attracting decent people into your life begins with you.

One last point on this subject: 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, based on many conversations over the years, that many people are under the impression that 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 gracious, 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 interest 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, than it is to say it with a scowl and an abrasive tone. Why make life harder than it has to be?

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

14 responses to “Can Niceness and Firmness Coexist?”

  1. Tex says:

    Closely tied with the "Nice guys finish last" quote is "No good deed goes unpunished." I admit that I never mastered the "toughness" you describe in your article, Robert. Hence, I've paid a high price for my "niceness" throughout my life. I LET too many people take advantage of my good nature and it's been very costly financially as well as emotionally.

    • John E. Gabor says:

      My situation is just the opposite. Even in retirement I wonder if I've "recovered" from the toughness and cold-heartedness I had thought was necessary for success all those years that I was working. So I'd say never stop trying to find that balance.

  2. Marte Cliff says:

    I agree with Tex – the toughness is tough to master.

  3. Pitch says:

    To sum it all up in just a few poignant thoughts, just as you have noted: why in the world would anyone in their right mind make their life more difficult than need be for any reason? Excessive "Niceness" without the (learned) capability of also looking out for number one first is a terrible trait and guaranteed to always bring negative results with all the full array of other garbage, heartache and failures of every conceivable kind to especially include the mental and emotional instability that always hitch a ride along on the coattail of excessive niceness. I personally learned long ago to always have my antenna at maximum operating power when I'm dealing with those that seem to possess this trait called extreme "Niceness." If one peels back but just a few layers from most any genuine niceness freak, the real person is always quickly exposed and it is generally not a pretty sight to behold and generally one of the more subtle shields for some of the world’s most grotesquely insane humans on our planet.

  4. Mike says:

    Tex, John & Marty, please re-read what Robert said Fair but firm I can't see anyplace where he referred to being tough as being good.

    • John E. Gabor says:

      Cold-hearted. Tough. Firm. Same principle, but the degree varies from person to person and from career to career is what I was saying. If you had it pretty easy in your life and career and firm worked well enough for you, then I'm happy for you. As far as re-reading for understanding goes – I can't understand how you read my comment and took "recovered" from toughness and cold-heartedness as my saying toughness and cold-heartedness were good things.

  5. Serge says:

    I have to say that being a gentleman is a rare trait for most. Our civility continues to decline with one another. A gentleman will stand alone and be a hit in business and with women. Being tough and macho isn't the same as decisive and firm. Knowing when to say no and knowing when to negotiate in a calm way with assertiveness not aggression, is being nice.

  6. Aron says:

    Dungy was pushed out of Tampa for being a nice guy. Gruden a loud in-your face kind took Tampa to the Super Bowl with Dungy's team. Gruden won the Super Bowl before Dungy. I like Dungy as a person, but as a TV announcer he is too slow and boring. One more strike against Dungy, he recommended Leslie Frazer to be the coach of the MN Vikings. Another nice guy that could not make things happen. I think there is a place for both types of personalities. The trick is knowing when each technique will work.

  7. george says:

    Funny thing happened to me bc I was docile.
    A beautiful woman in Japan was very angry at me bc she thought I was doing my job poorly.

    She ranted for 30 minutes. I kept thinking her arguments would have carried more weight if she was wearing a bikini. So I smiled and agreed to do better.

    Anyway the next week she told the real problem was she hated driving an hour across town, to my office.
    She then told me of an office for rent near her house for 10000 yen ($100) a month including an apartment.
    I didn't believe her but finally checked it out.The building was donated to the neighborhood. They didn't need to collect any rent. I took a girlfriend a toyota sales rep to meet the big boss of the area.
    She evidentally made me sound like Ghandi.
    I have been living here 10 years. Being gracious and kind definitely paid off that day.
    Miracle happen quite often if we don't kill the messenger.
    Have a great life!

  8. JurgSwiss says:

    Wow, these comments are amazing! Very well thought out. High quality folks in this forum! Now that was a nice thing to say! :).

  9. ed1 says:

    One of the best ways to earn respect and appear like a hero, is to show respect for the opinions of the one who criticizes and chastises you.

  10. R Van Der Voort says:

    Niceness AND firmness reminds me of the attitude I projected as a high school teacher in the early 60s. It worked VERY well. I was respected and well-liked, and got the job done. Fortunately after that year, I went on to become an English Instructor on the college level. Years later, I had occasion to do substitute teaching back down on the high school level. Niceness did not seem acknowledged, and firmness got me and the teaching process nowhere. Over the course of 20 or 30 years, did the New Crop(s) of young people change in some fundamental way? By then, firmness was not backed up by "the Office", the Administration, and apparently not by parents. What happened to American Values after the 1950s and maybe early 60s? Something "in the home" and "child rearing" changed apparently. And not for the better. Or am I merely reflecting the Old Guy attitude of "It wuz better when I wuz a boy comin' up". In any case, yes, things do change, and NOT necessarily for the better. Witness the current political situation in America.

    • John E. Gabor says:

      I can only speak for northern Indiana. Although it probably started slowly in the mid-60s, "the change" became apparent about 1970. Even as a hippie, I couldn't believe how much things had changed in my old high school – from dress code, rules, and order to practically anything goes.