I was recently speaking to someone who had been working in the same organisation for 35 years. I asked him, what kept him going? Without batting an eyelid, he said, “I love what I do, I love the people I work with, and I love what the organisation stands for”.
How amazing would it be if we had many such members on our teams?
Perhaps if we lead with love, we will be able to nurture such levels of inspiration and commitment in our organisations.
The Leadership Challenge, an iconic book based on over 30 years of research, concludes that “the best-kept secret of successful leaders is love”. Yet, how rarely we talk about love in the context of business and leadership! Here, we are not talking about romantic love, of course, but about “companionate” love — which translates to warmth, caring and compassion.
This week, my message focuses on the profound power of leading with love. What are the benefits of instilling love in the workplace? And what are some steps you can take to cultivate a more love-oriented leadership style?
Love is central to the human experience and most of us acknowledge its importance for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. So, why are we hesitant to talk about this emotion, which encompasses care, concern, and affection, in the context of our team members — the people with whom we spend most of our waking hours?
One possible reason is that the word itself is ambiguous. People have different ideas and understandings of love. This is why many leaders may not be comfortable with talking about “love” in the public domain, even if their behaviours and actions strongly reflect it.
Another reason could be that love is often perceived as a “soft” emotion, which goes against our typical understanding of leadership. However, it’s important to realize that love isn’t only about showing empathy and tenderness; it also includes “tough” aspects like providing a reality check or having difficult conversations when needed. Love doesn’t mean being passive or always agreeing with people.
The business case for love
A 2014 study conducted with over 3,000 employees across seven industries, ranging from financial services to real estate, found that love-based work cultures yield rich dividends, including fewer sick days, improved teamwork and higher job satisfaction. They also drive greater engagement and accountability.
Loving leadership infuses teams with a sense of community, commitment and compassion. By increasing resiliency through love in good times, these groups are better able to ride out the bad times together.
Research has found that some types of organizations offer more fertile ground for love, including founder-led start-ups, family-run businesses, and the military. This is probably because caring for co-workers is intertwined with personal relationships and deep connections — both defining characteristics of these work environments.
This is not to say that corporates can’t have a culture of love, but we may need to work a little harder and launch our efforts in a smaller realm of influence. Essentially, this means leaders and managers who wish to create a love-based workplace culture can start with their own teams and move forward from there.
What does love at work look like?
Love can be expressed at multiple levels of the organization. Towards colleagues, within teams, across the company, and even in external-facing relationships with customers, vendors, and other stakeholders.
Love presents itself in a variety of ways. A welcoming smile. A helping hand. A timely intervention for a team member who is overworking at the cost of their wellbeing. A word of caution for a co-worker whose behaviour could derail their career. A heartfelt thank you for the contributions of partners and stakeholders. A sincere apology for a slip-up. Listening more attentively and being present. Putting the needs of your team members before your own. All of these are expressions of love because they spring from a desire for the other person’s wellbeing, success, and happiness.
An interesting idea I came across was to think of love as an operating system, an analogy suggested by researchers in a Harvard Business Review article. Like an operating system, love is not highly visible. It’s the underlying framework that supports all the functional “apps” of an organization — finance, sales, human resources, strategy — and helps them interact well with each other and work more effectively.
How to lead with love
Here are five suggestions for leaders who wish to adopt a love-based approach:
1. The meaning is more important than the word.
As noted by the researchers in the HBR article mentioned above:
Our conclusion is that it is not worth the angst to get caught up in definitional issues around love. You might prefer to use words like compassion, respect, or kindness. That’s okay. They all speak to the same core idea, which is intentionally expressing concern and care for the well-being of another. Decide what it means for you and just get on with it. Furthermore, you don’t even need to talk about it, and many of the executives we have spoken with don’t. They let their actions, policies, products, and services do this instead.
2. Notice the “whole self” — and take action.
Paying attention is at the heart of love. As leaders, we must see our team members not just from the performance point of view but also with an eye on their wellbeing and career growth.
For example, you may have a star employee who is performing well but appears constantly stressed, works through mealtimes and never uses any vacation days. In such a case, a leader coming from a place of love should step in and encourage the individual to allocate some downtime for themselves to avoid the risk of burnout and health issues.
Or perhaps a talented team member is underperforming for no apparent reason. Here, leading with love means initiating a dialogue to learn the underlying cause. Many struggles (like family problems, mental health issues, office rumours) are invisible and we can only find out about them if we make the effort to truly care and understand. Providing support, or even simply offering insights and encouragement, could be exactly what the person needs to regain their footing.
3. Have those difficult conversations.
Delivering constructive criticism is one of the greatest acts of love a leader can offer. When you overcome your own discomfort and say what needs to be said objectively, you enable your team members to learn, course-correct and succeed.
Without those inputs, they will continue to repeat the same mistakes, which could endanger their professional prospects and reputation. Don’t put off awkward conversations until it’s too late and the damage is already done.
4. Foster curiosity and openness.
A piece from the THNK School of Leadership highlights the importance of being genuinely interested in what your team members have to say:
Listening deeply to what they are saying (and crucially: to what they are not saying), asking lots of questions, and exploring their perspectives from all angles. Judging and blaming are easy and just as easily lead to disengagement and conflict. On the other hand, staying open and curious in conversations generates an environment where people feel heard, seen, and truly cared about.
Creating a psychologically safe space for employees to express their thoughts, talk about failure and look for solutions together is one of the key features of a love-led workplace.
5. Find the behaviours behind the metrics.
Leading from love (rather than fear) means making the effort to identify the behaviours at the root of business problems. Mohammed Anwar, the co-founder and CEO of Softway, has shared that love as a business strategy is what saved his company.
In 2015, Softway was riddled with problems, including alarmingly low sales numbers. Adopting a people-centric inquiry approach, the leadership found two key issues in play: insufficient sales education, and lack of empathy for salespeople and customers. By providing extra training and intentionally creating a love-based culture, Softway was able to increase revenues by 300%, profits by 43% and revenue per employee by 269%.
Love is perhaps the most human of all emotions. Especially now, in the age of AI, loving leadership offers a powerful force for connecting with our shared humanness and creating engaged, committed and compassionate teams that are invested in one another’s success and wellbeing. Let me leave you with these thought-provoking words from the HBR piece referenced earlier:
One thing we know for sure from years of studying this subject is that it will raise a few eyebrows. Talking about love is not the norm…. For that reason, it takes great courage to lead from love. It is an act of leadership, no matter what your formal position in an organization.