Love-based leadership can help transform ourselves and our organizations. It has many powerful benefits.
Love-based leadership belongs in our workplaces, but it’s not what we often think of as love.
Love can mean different things. We can love our spouse or child, or a friend, or a book or film, and more.
Different Types of Love
Ancient Greek philosophers described several different types of love, including:
- Eros: romantic, passionate, intimate, or sensual love, potentially including sexual attraction and longing.
- Storge: natural or instinctual love, affection, or allegiance (e.g., of parents or family members but also of a sports team or country).
- Philia: a kind of dispassionate and virtuous love expressed as authentic friendship and wanting what’s best for the other (e.g., loyalty to our friends and community).
- Philautia: self-love or self-compassion, including regard for our own condition and happiness (this can show up in positive ways such as buying a book to learn from, or in negative ways such as being selfish or vain).
- Agape: empathetic, universal, or brotherly love for others, potentially including strangers, those in need, humanity, nature, and God (this form of love can be demonstrated by volunteering).
There are other types of love as well, including pragma (a convenient type of love based on things like compatibility and a desire to work with a partner to achieve a common goal), xenia (a form of hospitality that includes generosity and perhaps gifts given to guests and foreigners), and more. Here we’re focused mostly on philia and storge.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
Warlike Thinking in Business
Too often, we think about business not in terms of love but in terms of things like war and combat. That’s about as far as we can get from love. In business, people often use or hear terms like these:
- “firing people”
- “hostile takeover”
- “making a killing”
- “captive market”
- “cola wars”
- “poison pill”
- “sales force”
- “shareholder revolt”
- “trade war”
- “Neutron Jack” Welch (GE)
- “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap (Sunbeam)
And there are scores of business books using war and combat as their operative metaphor.
Other common metaphors for business include competitive sports and Darwinian evolution. For example, people in business will often say things like the following:
- “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” -attributed to UCLA football coach Henry Russell Sanders
- “Survival of the fittest.”
- “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.”
- “It’s a jungle out there.”
- “You need to look out for number one.”
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
-Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones”
We also use mechanistic terms for human things in business (e.g., “human resources,” “human capital”).*
These aren’t just harmless metaphors. They color our thinking about leadership and inform its practice.
What, then, is love-based leadership in the workplace if it’s not these things?
Leadership Derailers Assessment
Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.
Love-Based Leadership in the Workplace
When we’re talking about love-based leadership, we’re talking about things like caring and respectful collegiality, brotherly love for our team, loyalty to our colleagues and organization (including wanting what’s best for them), and fun celebrations.
Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade researched what she called “companionate love” in the workplace. She noted that it’s shown “when colleagues who are together day in and day out, ask and care about each other’s work and even non-work issues. They are careful of each other’s feelings. They show compassion when things don’t go well. And they also show affection and caring—and that can be about bringing somebody a cup of coffee when you go get your own, or just listening when a co-worker needs to talk.”
Love can be a noun defined as a strong feeling of deep affection (e.g., first responders’ love for one another as brothers and sisters). Or love can be a verb defined as holding dear, cherishing, or caring for someone or something. The key to love-based leadership, we submit, is actualizing it, not just feeling it.
Love-based leadership is something we do. It requires action.
What are the actions of love-based leadership? They include things like connecting, caring, showing compassion, recognizing, appreciating, giving, forgiving, having fun, and more.
Leading with Fear or Love
We can lead with love or fear. Many people today choose fear, believing it’s a better motivator and something that will help preserve their position and power. We believe they’re making a huge mistake.
Fear-based leadership is transactional. There’s an explicit or implicit understanding in fear-based leadership that the boss will reward you for doing what he or she wants and punish you for messing up. As a result, people shut down. They put in their time to collect a paycheck but seldom show initiative or express new ideas. They turn their real attention and talents to outside endeavors. What a waste.
Love-based leadership is transformational. It unleashes the potential latent in people. It garners their commitment, engagement, and collaboration. It taps into their innate desire to do meaningful work. It brings joy into an otherwise lifeless workplace. And it engages the heart.
“Our approach is extraordinarily successful because we have tapped
into something far more fundamental to our true nature,
which is the opposite of fear: love.”
–Bob Chapman, chairman and CEO, Barry-Wehmiller
Is love-based leadership soft and gooey, too sappy and sentimental for our tough world and competitive workplaces? Far from it.
In their book, Conscious Leadership, authors John Mackey, Steve McIntosh, and Carter Phipps note that, although we tend to think of gentle things like nurturing and supporting when we think of love, it also has a stronger side. Love can be fierce, resolute, tough, challenging, and uncompromising (e.g., when we rush to defend someone or something we love).
The Benefits of Love-Based Leadership
Love-based leadership is very powerful, especially when it’s had time to work its magic and withstand challenges. (Followers will be looking to see if leaders abandon love-based leadership when the organization is under pressure, so it’s essential for leaders to stick with it.)
Love-based leadership can do the following in organizations:
- help leaders get to know their team, which can lead to important insights (e.g., a need for a change in role or motivational approach)
- connect people with each other
- foster trust and psychological safety among workers
- build a sense of family or community in the workplace
- facilitate more cohesive collaboration among workers
- foster inclusion and belonging in the workplace
- increase worker satisfaction and engagement
- connect people with a higher purpose in their work
- help leaders provide their colleagues with what they need to succeed
- motivate people to be their best**
- save time and increase productivity, since trust levels are so high and political machinations are reduced
- improve decision-making
- enable fun and joy at work
- foster creativity and innovation
- help leaders avoid the trap of ego and arrogance
- boost performance
Love-based leadership is transformational. It means caring for people as well as ditching our ego. Once they’ve experienced it, people won’t want to go back to a fear-based workplace.
“And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself,
and to one another, and to God.”
-excerpted from the poem, “On Work,” by Kahlil Gibran
- Does love (connecting, caring, recognizing, appreciating, giving, and having fun) fit into your approach to leadership?
- Are you willing to begin practicing love-based leadership?
Tools for You
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
- Personal Values Exercise to help you determine and clarify what’s most important to you
- Alignment Scorecard to help you assess your organization’s level of alignment
When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.
Related Articles and Books
- “Love as a Leadership Imperative”
- “Tribute to General Jack Chain—An Extraordinary Leader”
- John Mackey, Steve McInstosh, and Carter Phipps, Conscious Leadership
- Raj Sisodia and Michael J. Gelb, The Healing Organization
- Dr. Maria Church, Love-Based Leadership
- Joel Manby, Love Works
Postscript: Inspirations on Love and Leadership
- “Love is very much in the corporate closet. But it doesn’t have to be that way….” -Raj Sisodia and Michael J. Gelb, The Healing Organization
- “Leaders driven by love will bring sustainability and healing to the business, as well as for themselves.” -Nand Kishore Chaudhry, Indian social entrepreneur and chairman and Managing Director of Jaipur Rugs
- “Our capacity to give and receive love is what defines us as human beings, as divine creatures endowed with intelligence, imagination, and free will. If we wish, it can pervade our lives with sweetness, beauty, and joy.” -Raj Sisodia and Michael J. Gelb, The Healing Organization
- “Leadership today is based on relationships built with trust, hope, love, and encouragement.” -Billy Cox, author
- “Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man
*In their book, Conscious Leadership, authors John Mackey, Steve McInstosh, and Carter Phipps recommend thinking of business as a community, not a battlefield or jungle.
** A Wharton study of 185 workers found that those who worked in a loving organization were more satisfied, committed, and accountable—and worked more cohesively with their colleagues. (Barsade, S. G., & O’Neill, O. A. (2014). What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in a Long-Term Care Setting. Administrative Science Quarterly, 1-48.) According to a Towers Watson Global Workforce study of 32,000 workers from 29 countries, workers with caring leaders were 67% more engaged. (Towers Watson, “Global Workforce Study 2012.”)
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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!