Want to be a great leader? Learn to Love

Welcome to my blog, in this series I explore leadership characteristics. Here I draw on my own leadership experience and my work as an executive coach to share with you thoughts on what makes for a great leader. I consider there are a number of leadership characteristics you need to display and work on to be more than average.  I want in this blog to focus on the theme of LOVE.

Short on time have a look at this fabulous graphic provided by @engagevisually

150928 LOVE.under 2MP

Love is a strange and potentially difficult concept for some of you in the context of buisenss. I’m sure that you didn’t learn Love in Business School and we never talk love in the boardroom.  Well not in the boardrooms I have been a member of that’s for sure.

I like many of you went to business school and my MBA taught me useful skills and strategies for developing, running and growing business. It also taught me the latest thinking on leadership and management and I think with hindsight it acted as a badge of honour to validate my climb up the slippery corporate pole. It taught me particularly to assess and manage risk and ultimately it taught me that we lead through controlling and sometimes by instilling fear in the workforce. Boardroom talk is so often”meet your targets, keep the project on track, assess risks and avoid failure at all costs”. When you do fail then blame the business context, blame the workforce or worst blame the customers for being too demanding or for wanting something else.

If you love someone do you behave like that though?

Business school didn’t teach me how to really engage customers or staff beyond the business norms. I learnt that instead in business settings, from working with senior colleagues, through my reading and through my own experience of leading. I learnt that we need a radically different approach to succeed.

We need the opposite of strong and tough leaders and leadership by fear. We instead need to build business based on LOVE. To love our products, our customers and to love our staff. There is of course a paradox here with what we are taught in business school, practised in our work and how we do business in the west. Business settings often make us think that love is weak and inappropriate in business as it’s not defined by seeking power or control over organisations or others.

If we focus on love we also face a challenge if we are associated with teams and products we don’t or can’t love and don’t believe in. But, if you are in a business or a team you don’t love I think it shows. So, it’s in all of our interest to find ways to love our work and our staff or leave and find the work and people we can love. Unfortunately our approach to business is more often one of shutting down feelings, emotions and connectedness. I have worked for CEOs who have even said:

“No emotions in the boardroom please that makes me uncomfortable.”

Those sorts of business leaders have always troubled me and they often see me as trouble too. As I just can’t lead like that and I don’t think that’s the way to lead either. I’ve been told at times I’m too connected to the staff and customers and I should hold it all more lightly. But, if you want people to follow will they do it if you don’t take their needs seriously? If you don’t commit to them and the business? I don’t think they do and I think that’s why staff engagement is so poor in many of our businesses.

We instead look around at the businesses who are successful, especially the great entrepreneurs. We see that they love their products and they want to share that love with the world. They don’t grow their business to make money. Money is a by-product of a great offer and a great staff team always reside behind that offer. They love their customers and they get a huge sense of satisfaction with the customer’s pleasure and positive experience. They also go to the ends of the earth to fix problems in their business if customers and staff are dissatisfied. This sort of business leadership is rare and I fear becoming rarer in a world of cost cutting, competitive advantage, professional image and regulation.

Deloittes 2015 HR survey suggested culture, employee engagement and retention is now the most pressing challenge for business. So, my summary of their report is we need to find ways to love staff, even if loving is hard and sacrifices something of ourselves on the way. We need to find ways to keep staff and find even better ways to love them back to us if they are disengaged.  http://d2mtr37y39tpbu.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/DUP_GlobalHumanCapitalTrends2015.pdf

If you don’t believe focusing on love would make a difference to you or your team? Just throw into your next team meeting a couple of questions. Ask each team member to take five minutes and write down their responses and then to stick them up on a board.

  1. Tell me about the risks and challenges we currently face?
  2. What or who do you each love and how does that make you feel?
  3. Think about our business and tell me who or what do you love about this place?
  4. Think about our products and would our customers say they love them and why?

I tell you, the reactions will astound you, we are desperate to love, we look for love and we are brought alive by love. Whereas power and fear shut us all down and scare us out of innovation, creativity and motivation. In her book, Freedom from Fear, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

The opposite of fear is love and the ancient Greeks had 30 words to describe love. Yet we have diminished love to just a few things.  We have often reduced love to erotic love, familial love and friendship love…..but what if we had a broader view of love and brought that to our workplace, our staff, our bosses the business we do,  our customers…how would that change the way we work?

If you remember the movie Jerry Maguire you will remember the character played by Tom Cruise. Jerry loved work with a passion, he loved his business that’s why he wrote that mission statement, that is ultimately why he got sacked in the opening scenes. No one else could get it, engage with it or pull down the façade of business and professionalism they had created. So, they thought Jerry was crazy. Jerry shared the love he had of his only player when he said:

“I am out here for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be ME out here for YOU. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok?”

But, for most of the movie Jerry never brought that out in the open into his leading or the way he led. He talked under pressure, in a wash room and angry about never fully telling it. Are you that leader? The one who loves? The one who wells up when a customer tells you how a product disappointed them or how brilliant it was? The one who loves but can’t share it?

I am that leader and I know many of you are too. But why are we scared to show that love and that connection with our product, our customers and our business. Why can’t we talk about love, celebrate it and mean it in business?

We have been shut down by a western view of leadership being about control, holding onto power and success being equated with strength. But deep down we feel a fraud as we know it’s something else that is needed isn’t it?

If we take a minute to reflect on these feelings of connection with staff and customers and our product we start to delve into agape which is the love of and for humanity or  philia, the love we feel from a shared experience. Then we are in touching distance of the space where we need to get to be great business leaders.

If we focus on how we can experience and grow love in an organisation rather than leading by fear and control how would that change us and those we work with? Well I think it would change everything. But we so often don’t do it because it is risky. We are not open in business as we fear that protectionism, envy and power are stronger than love. But look to history and tell me did fear and power and envy ever last in the end or was it eventually overturned by love? That’s why we need to love ourselves, our staff, our customers and our organisations. If we love them they will start to love us back.

I think we need to imagine our customers as our family and friends. We know how to love them don’t we? What would our business be like if we loved our customers and our staff like we love our friends, our family or ours sports team. Making it goo denough for your mum, sticking with them, going the extra mile, getting it right for them and staying with it, admitting it when getting it wrong also.

But be careful as for a start it starts with you as an individual and it will be costly as it would mean changing how you engage. You have to be open, authentic and vulnerable as love hurts. But without love you will slowly die and your leadership and business will not thrive as it might. CS Lewis said in his book The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Our public services and businesses and our staff need love and leaders who love them. We are so familiar with leaders who are self-serving, egotistical or narcissistic. We read of care scandals, over whelmed and exhausted staff and rules after rules and we know they are not the answer. We cannot change these issues overnight but we need to think about a different approach.

A few years ago I was working for the UK government and had the privilege of organising a study tour to Sweden to look at their model of Dementia care. I took about 20 senior leaders. Civil servants, Public health doctors, social services directors and general practitioners. We visited a number of care settings and met staff and leaders of those services. One day we were in a dementia day centre and the staff member was affectionately holding the hand of an elderly lady with dementia. She had her dog in the unit and would kiss her dog then spontaneous kiss the staff member. Another lady was cutting up apples for a pie (badly and slowly I must add). The place was happy and there was sense of calm, love and affection in it. We asked about lunch and were told they would eat when the pie was ready and that might be later than 12 noon. They operated like your family would, lunch came when lunch came and all contributed.  So very unlike any units you expect to see in this sort of care setting.

Later as a visiting group we discussed what we found and all concluded rather jokingly that based on what we saw we would like Swedish citizenship so we could be cared for that way. But sadly we reflected that in our system that model of care would not be tolerated as the professional boundaries and regulations were challenged by this approach. But we all agreed that they had love and that’s what we wanted if we needed care in old age.

We asked the leader later over dinner with us why the staff interacted this way and how they maintained professional boundaries when staff did this. Horrified she had misheard our questions she asking our interpreter to translate again. She then took a deep breath and replied:

“We love these people, we can’t do this work without love. We help them by being alongside them, they are not calm, happy or cared for without our staff loving them.”

The next day our meeting with another senior leader was delayed as there had been an incident overnight and she was being interviewed on TV  by local media. We assumed it was a death or a patient had disappeared from the unit. The sort of issues we would go to the media about in the UK. We were genuinely shocked to discover she had called the press in herself. To tell them the service had failed a lady by leaving her unattended and alone on the toilet for an hour and the staff were upset they had let her down. The sort of reaction you would give if you left your own toddler in the supermarket by mistake but not as a business leader. She was the leader of this service and crying on local TV about this incident as if it had happened to her own mother. That looked like love  to me.

So, how do we start to bring love into the business where you are? Start that personal and business journey today. Simply start to love and you will be loved by your staff, your team your customers. Ask your colleagues the questions I outlined above.   Put on your wall in your office a sign saying: if this business were loving its customers what would it be doing? Wait for your visitors to notice the sign and make suggestions.

Remember this is a journey, a mind set shift and you can’t do this overnight and it will hurt at times. Get a coach yourself and a facilitator for your team to discuss this and start to think about having these conversations with staff. When it hurts and is difficult you will need a safe place to take that pain and frustration and to keep working on it so you don’t shut down under the pressure to be open and real.

Let’s finish with that great book The Velveteen Rabbit – as this is how love really works:

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Do contact me for executive coaching face to face or SKYPE, mentoring and leadership speaking. I might be some of the difference you need and I would love to work with you on your leadership journey.


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