Leadership: What's Love Got to Do With It?

I have been pondering how love became conceptually separated from leadership. For the better part of 20 years I have given multiple lectures and seminars exploring emotional intelligence, self-knowledge, and empathy within the context of leadership, but I have never spoken about the heart, and I have certainly never spoken about love. Perhaps there is no place for a conversation about love if leadership is understood as a charismatic gesture that either hypnotizes or controls. However, at this point in history, the conversation in leadership seems beyond the framework of command and control. Most of us recognize that with the level of specialization that now exists, the speed of change, the transformation of culture through social media, the overall complexity of a global business environment, and the enormous social challenges that we face, collaboration is central to leadership. At the heart of collaboration is love.

Most of us think of love as an emotion. There is a love that is emotive, often referred to as affection. In his book, The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes affection as the most natural, emotive, and diffuse of loves. Affectionate love, however, is not necessary for collaboration. It is love without emotion, that is, compassion, which lies at the heart of a true collaborative process. Compassion arises when we recognize something universal about the other, dissolving judgment and separation and promoting understanding and oneness. It is an essential part of agape, defined by the Greeks as the highest form of love. In this case, love is an act, not an emotion. It is a selfless, spontaneous and consuming commitment to the well-being of others. There is, within this kind of love, recognition of the truth of the interconnection of all of existence. Agape is not based on preferences, on our likes or dislikes. It is the rare human being who develops this kind of love to its fullest potential. Nonetheless, we are born with an innate desire to develop and promote selfless love. Barbara Frederickson, in a wonderful piece called, "The Science of Love" shares research that demonstrates that the body is designed to love, noting that love energizes our entire system, broadens our mindset, deepens our attunement to others, and enhances creativity.

Love that transcends our personal ego meets one of the most fundamental human desires -- the yearning for connection. This yearning extends not only to fellow human beings but to life itself. All of us wish to be palpably connected to the life force that is unfolding in any given moment. We often find this immediacy of connection when we go into nature. The sheer beauty of nature calls us into the present and awakens us. Yet we do not have to be in a certain emotional state to experience this. For example, we can be in the middle of devastating loss and yet experience a profound sense of connection.

To mobilize and inspire others requires that a leader understand where a person finds his/her connection to this life force. I may feel the most passionate when I am participating in complex conceptual work, or when I am teaching, or when I am organizing processes, or working with numbers. When leaders create and insure alignment between the place where people feel connected and the actual day-to-day work that they do, reservoirs of energy and creativity are released. This life force is love.

Too often in business egotism is promoted as a feature of leadership. We elevate the Marlboro Man and worship the archetype of hero. Even our childhood games often celebrate the individual and miss the boat on selflessness or anything close to collaboration, such as the anxiety provoking childhood game - musical chairs - rigged to eliminate the losers, one by one. When we promote egotism in this way we undermine our sense of connection, and in these moments, inadvertently increase our sense of isolation.

The longing to be connected to the ongoing unfolding of life itself is inextricably linked to our longing to serve. When our work is largely self-serving we find ourselves imprisoned by a container that is too small to hold the depth of our capacity or our longing. Focusing primarily on ourselves we cannot find fulfillment. Again, we reinforce a sense of isolation which works in opposition to our desire for connection and the benefits of collaboration.

Leadership that is not based on the centrality of love loses the centrality of our humanity. We end up making decisions like putting vending machines selling soft drinks into elementary schools or selling formula to nursing mothers in poor countries to promote sales. This narrow focus is present when the bottom line or share holder return is the highest value. In this case, the wellbeing of a handful of people is elevated above the wellbeing of those served by the mission of the organization or what may be best for the culture at large. Placing shareholder value as the highest value inadvertently isolates the shareholders and subverts the truth of interconnection.

Our work, in order to be fulfilling and effective, acknowledges the interconnection of all of life. As we serve a larger purpose, we directly experience this sense of connection, and with this arises well-being, inspiration, and gratitude; in essence, we flood our system with love. Our leadership will spontaneously evoke inspiration as a result.

By contrast, a common approach to leadership is through fear. This can take many forms with differing levels of subtlety. The most simplistic is to mobilize others through threat, making it clear to people what we require of them and using punishment as a means of getting them to comply. Many families, organizations, and institutions are led through the threat of punishment. I say to my child, "You had better pick up your toys or you will go to your room," an example of the use of threat as a means of getting action. A subtler approach is threatening a person's self-esteem, sense of connection, or sense of being valued. I say to my child, "You had better pick up your toys," and embedded in my tone is the threat of the withdrawal of love or the suggestion that if the child does not do so, s/he will be devalued.

Leadership through forced authority shows up inadvertently -- and frequently -- in present-day organizations. The threat of job loss, the shame of falling below colleagues and coworkers when competitively lined up against them, or incurring the wrath of a boss are examples of this kind of motivation. This is the antithesis of leadership that is guided by love.

To lead through love, in a way that promotes collaboration, requires that leaders provide a connection between workers and their work, a sense of shared meaning, and a sense of purpose that goes beyond each individual's own self-aggrandizement. In so doing we draw on the interconnected substratum that runs through all of existence. To lead in this way requires that leaders be aware of the way in which their personal egos blocks access to the deeper love that is at the heart of being human, a love that is called forth when we transcend our own small selves and serve humanity.