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Leadership is Love

Updated: Mar 10, 2020


As Mr. Rogers - the beloved American children's TV show host -- said, "love is the root of everything". Everything that is done well, that we celebrate, that moves us, that we aspire

to be - is anchored in love. Love enlivens us and is the source of healing, strength, and creativity. And love is rooted in the deep understanding that we are all connected. Workplaces are a natural point of connection; a natural place to find evidence of love. We understand that people who love their work and teams that love the people they work with will perform better than others. What is unusual is the lack of discussion we have about love at work, and how we might cultivate it. We don't talk about leaders' role in embodying love and in creating cultures of connection. At its heart, leadership is connection, leadership is service, leadership is love.

"I have a secret to success in life", U.S. Army Major General John H. Stanford reported in 1986 when asked how he would develop leaders. "The secret is to stay in love. Staying in love gives you the fire to really ignite other people, to see inside other people, to have a greater desire to get things done than other people... I don't know any other fire, any other thing in life that is more exhilarating and is more positive a feeling than love is." Not what we would have expected this tested military man to say, but there it is.

In the last 40 years, today's leadership gurus are making this connection explicit, but the idea hasn't reached many corporate cultures yet. Rodney Ferris' "How Organizational Love Can Improve Leadership", and James Kouzes and Barry Posner's "The Truth About Leadership" have made compelling arguments that love is the soul of leadership, and that love is the root of a leader's courage. Brene Brown's Dare to Lead focuses on wholehearted leadership, and being vulnerable, courageous, and brave. Simon Sinek talks about the "Power of Love". Beverly Kaye's book "Love 'em or Lose 'em, is in it's 5th edition with almost a million copies sold.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Khalil Gibran published "The Prophet", one of the best selling books of all time. In it, is his meditation "On Work", making very clear the link between love and work. "You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth...When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.

And going even further back, poets and priests have observed the same about love, work, and connection. So if work is about love, connections with colleagues is grounded in love, and leadership is love, why don't we discuss it more in our workplaces? And why is it imperative that we talk more about it now?

By recognizing and cultivating love in the context of work, leaders can connect, adapt, and inspire - crucial abilities in today's exponentially changing workplaces. In "Dying for a Paycheck", Jeffrey Pfeffer "marshals a vast trove of evidence and numerous examples from all over the world to expose the infuriating truth about modern work life: even as organizations allow management practices that actually sicken and kill their employees, those policies do not enhance productivity or the bottom line, thereby creating a lose-lose-situation". The answer to this and to to today's growing epidemics of disconnection, disengagement, polarization, stress, and loneliness, and to creating win-win solutions, is an intentional focus on creating loving workplaces.

In her book Real Love, Sharon Salzberg (credited with bringing meditation to the US in 1976, and founder of the Insight Meditation Society) states "We are born ready to love and be loved. It is our birthright. Our ability to connect with others is innate, wired into our nervous systems, and we need connection as much as we need physical nourishment." Indeed, our brains have an overarching organizing principle to minimize danger (move away from perceived threats) and maximize rewards (move toward perceived connection).

Our limbic system's reactivity and our inherent negativity bias makes us cautious of new connections, or initially put us in an "away" response around people we don't know. Not a bad thing for self-preservation throughout history. But not the best way to creat loving workplaces. We also know that once a connection is made, when people are seen and feel safe, the "toward" reaction kicks in; the neurotransmitter oxytocin is released; and our innate human interconnectedness is realized; watch out for what we can do together! In that state of safe and loving connection, philosophers place us on the path to the divine. As Khalil Gibran said "if you work with love, you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God". So how can we intentionally set about to build more loving workplaces? Leaders have been found to account for up to 70% of the variance in how engaged employees are at work. And engaged workplace is a loving workplace. Leadership is the answer. So what can leaders do?


7 ways leaders can be more intentional about cultivating loving connections at work

Attention - Sharon Salzberg recounts a story about being asked in a dream "why do we love people?" Her highly-attuned dreaming self answered "because they see us". One of the best ways we can show people we care for them is by paying attention to them. By asking how their day is and actually caring about the answer. Not being distracted in today's distractable world. By not assuming everyone's experience has been like yours, or "we're all the same", but truly understanding people's differences. What makes them different & unique. What their context and experiences have been. Knowing their values, motivators, and strengths. And leaders can work with their employees to craft the job to allow the person to leverage their strengths. To open the doors to people to surprise you, and revel in awe when they do.

Curiosity - Truly being curious about the people we work with is key. How often do we rush around asking shallow questions that don't create opportunities for real connection. Asking better questions is an opportunity for personal expression and creativity. Michael Bungay Stanier states in The Coaching Habit that good leadership boils down to this: "how can you stay curious just a little bit longer? How can you rush to giving advice just a little slower?" When you are curious, you'll find that asking questions comes naturally. But if you need help, he outlines 7 great questions in his book that you can use in any interaction.

And then there are The 36 Questions That Lead to Love, published in the New York Times in 2015. "The study explored (and found) that intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions. One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Try some of them in your one-on-ones or team meetings.

Listening - Empathic listening is a key practice. Beyond the normal (distracted) listening we do during the hustle & bustle of the day, or even the "active listening" that exist in many leadership development programs, we must practice a different kind of listening. The Chinese language has a character for listen. “TING,” captures the full spirit of listening. To focus on the speaker, to be fully present. Focus with our ears to hear the words the person is speaking. With our mind to understand the message being conveyed, its meaning. With our eyes to see any nonverbal cues. And with our heart, to understand the emotion that is being conveyed, the intention behind the words. Listening this way shifts us out of our inner monologue, focused on what we might want to say, and allows us to really hear the person we are connecting with.


Dr. David Rock, founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, coined the acronym SCARF to summarize our primary threat/reward triggers. Considered a revolutionary way to categorize our neurobiology, and impacting work by providing better understanding of what drives our behaviors. Wise leaders will pay attention to how our brains motivate us (often subconsciously). We can use this awareness to create reward states, and further strengthen connection.

- Status: A sense of status going up, even in a small way, activates our reward circuits. Leaders can reduce status threats in others by lowering your status through sharing your own humanity or mistakes. Give positive feedback. Help people think about their own thinking rather than giving advice or feedback which can easily trigger threat states.

- Certainty: Try to help find certainty and therefore emotional regulation by reappraising the situation. Clarify roles and responsibilities. Practice stating your expectations and reappraising them with your team regularly. Check if there are questions.

- Autonomy: Find ways to create choice and a perception of control. Give employees the time and space to do their work. without interruption. Trust them to be competent and avoid "helping" unless they ask for help.

- Relatedness: Find ways to create a community. Be aware of perceptions of "in-groups" and "out-groups". Aim to grow the "in-group". Use collective pronouns ("we", "us").

- Fairness: Be open and transparent in your dealings with people. Share your thought process behind decisions. Don't let unfairness go unaddressed.


Suffering is rampant in today's workplaces and in today's world. Compassion, for yourself, and for others, is critical. The Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, points to a "growing body of research that suggests attending to suffering at work doesn’t hinder an organization, but helps it. Responding compassionately to workers not only improves their performance and loyalty, but also creates an atmosphere that is safe for learning, collaboration, and innovation—which all impact the bottom line."

Self-compassion, or self-love is as important as creating loving environments for others. Be gentle with yourself. our self talk should be no harsher than it would be for a child, lover, or good friend. A good place to start is Kristen Neff's self-compassion test.

Beyond self-compassion, a good way to build a practice of compassion for others, maybe even others you might have difficult emotions for, is to begin a lovingkindness mediation practice. Lovingkindness is a practice that cultivates our natural capacity for an open and loving heart. Use these words as an anchor to feeling grounded, content and loving towards yourself and others.


Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of Freakonomics, said "When it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love - because if you don't love it, you're unlikely to get very good". People who had achieved high levels of success and happiness in their work have been found to regularly get into a state of Flow. First studied in depth by a Hungarian psychologist, Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is "The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." It is true love of the work. Steven Kotler, one of the authors of "The Future is Faster than you Think" asserts that flow is the only time the brain can think and perform at speed. In a world where we’re all already struggling to keep pace—and one that will only continue to accelerate due to converging exponentials—this uptick in productivity and motivation gives us the turbo-boost needed to stay ahead of the curve. The neurochemistry allows the brain to see things from multiple perspectives and across longer timelines. It means we can use flow to see farther into the future and think at scale. Steven provides many training options in The Flow Research Collective.

Build community

In so many companies, the quest to wring efficiency out of every process has also led to wringing every ounce from the people that work there. We have left our people depleted. As companies focus more and more on sustainability, there should also be a shift to focus on sustainability of our human resources. Intentionally instituting community-building events that hold space for human flourishing and connection are an essential part of a leaders responsibility. Recent findings show the benefits far outweigh the minimal costs associated with well-designed interventions and exercises.


Love is a verb. Love is an ability and a responsibility. Love is within ourselves, and is abundant, limitless. We can choose to give it away or not, and the more we give, the more we will receive. Let's consciously give more of it away at work.

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