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Love and Leadership

In my last post I took a bit of a contrarian look at passion as a leadership trait. Who knew people were so passionate about passion? The comments I received inspired me to republish this piece on love and leadership. While most people tend to view passion as a positive leadership trait, I have found many people view love as a negative leadership trait. Let me state right from the outset, you’ll never be a great leader without being loving and compassionate. While today’s post is a bit more kumbaya than most, please don’t check out on me because you perceive this topic too gooey and gushy to be relevant. If you take what follows to heart, it might just change your world.

I viewed a brief Twitter exchange between Becky Robinson (@BeckyRbnsn) and David Hutchens (@davidbhutchens) which piqued my curiosity. David asked Becky, “How come no one ever talks about love as a leadership competency?” I think it’s a great question. While love and leadership are certainly two words you don’t often hear in the same sentence, I can assure you that rarely does great leadership exist without love being present and practiced. In fact, if you examine failed leaders as a class, you’ll find that a lack of love, misplaced love, or misguided love were a contributing cause of said failures, if not the root cause. In the text that follows I’ll examine the softer sides of leadership – love, compassion, humility, kindness and empathy.

I’ve addressed this topic before, but perhaps not in this fashion…True leadership is dedication to something beyond self. If you’re not committed, passionate and intentional in your focus on something besides yourself, you might be in a leadership role, but you’re not a leader. Leadership is not about your avarice, ego, pride, or arrogance – it’s about caring for something bigger than you are. Leadership in the truest sense of the word is nothing if not love. Do me a favor and conduct a brief gut check and see if this resonates with you – How many truly great leaders have you encountered during your lifetime? Of those great leaders you’ve crossed paths with, how many of them were kind, caring, compassionate, humble and loving individuals? Of the legions of not so great leaders you’ve encountered over the years, how many of them were absent of these qualities? Starting to get my drift?

News Flash – the phrase compassionate leadership is not an oxymoron. While many people immediately conjure-up an image of the ever so tough, bombastic extrovert without an ounce of compassion as the picture of what constitutes a real leader, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, some of the toughest leaders I know are the most compassionate leaders. If a leader’s primary obligation is for the care and well being of those under their charge, then I would suggest that you cannot be an effective leader over the long-term without love, compassion and empathy. So why then is it that so many leaders seem to struggle with seeing a tender heart as a strength and not a weakness? Read on and find out…

People who attempt to lead out of self-serving motivations or misplaced intentions are not really leading – they are pursuing power, glory and status. This is the antithesis of true leadership. People who attempt to lead out of obligation do so out of burden not love only to eventually become weary and jaded. It is love for those you lead that allows for right thinking, proper perspective, and pure motivations. A leader whose focus is on serving others will find it difficult to wander off course. While being motivated solely by conquest may allow you to achieve a stated goal or objective, the cost will be great. History is littered with leaders of this ilk have not endured the test of time often.  As I mentioned earlier, it is always important to remember that leading and being a real leader are not one in the same.

I don’t know anyone whose been on the receiving end of authentic and appropriate love and compassion that has a distaste for it. Despite this, many in the leadership profession work very hard at maintaining that carefully crafted cool facade. They resist at all costs letting that dreaded public display of compassion slip out. It’s as if such an act would tarnish their reputation forever by making them appear weak. This is just not the case…compassion is one of the most overlooked, underrated and yet valuable of all leadership traits. Leaders who show compassion are respected, trusted, and enjoy the loyalty of those they lead.

People’s resistance to display compassion, other than to family and friends, is what makes it so complex. The natural inclination of most is to react compassionately when and/or where needed – that is until they stop to think about the ramifications of doing so. Social and societal stigmas are definitely in play when it comes to love and leadership. I believe the fear of public misperceptions have trained many people to completely avoid outward displays of compassion. It’s as if it has been socialized out of them over time.

It’s also important to recognize that while feigned compassion is the height of insincerity, true love is the best form of authenticity, and the purest form of strength. It takes far more courage to display love than disinterest, as compassion requires an investment of time, caring, empathy and understanding. Leaders need to understand that compassion humanizes them, allows them to build stronger trust bonds, and engenders confidence and loyalty from peers and subordinates alike.

Bottom line…good leaders are kind, empathetic, compassionate and loving leaders, which enables them to be fair, just and to display a steely resolve when needed. What do you think? Should leaders be more open with their feelings? Should the traits mentioned above be more formally cultivated in leadership development programs? As always, I’m interested in your comments…

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    Jane Perdue

    December 2, 2010 at 8:00 am

    Mike – well said. Unless a leader can lead from both the head and the heart, they can’t lay claim to calling themselves effective!



    December 2, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Good One!


    Sharon Eden

    December 2, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Absolutely agree with you, Mike. And there’s no professional development without personal development… In this case, I suspect those leaders who find it difficult to express their compassion publicly could do so with some developmental work.


    Lori Meyer

    December 2, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. You mentioned a key word — empathy, a critical characteristic of a strong leader. It is emphathy that enables leaders to understand both their teams and their customers, and foster an atmosphere of greater creativity and problem-solving.



      December 2, 2010 at 12:56 pm

      Hi Lori:

      I agree completely. In some circles a lack of empathy is defined as having sociopathic tendencies 🙂 Thanks for sharing Lori…


    Deb Costello

    December 2, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    I love this post! I cannot believe how many "leaders" I have encountered that this that if they show emotion, it means weakness. I can only hope that our leaders learn to love the work, love the people around them, and love that they are allowed to do so.



      December 2, 2010 at 12:58 pm

      Hi Deb:

      Agreed…true strength is born out of love. Not recognizing this is not only flawed thinking, but just plain sad…Thanks for stopping by Deb.


    Dan Collins

    December 2, 2010 at 1:45 pm


    This is a very, very important post. It addresses one of the most prevalent misconceptions of leadership extremely well. The toughest, most demanding and what (at the time) appeared to be most uncompromising and unreasonable leaders I have had the honor to work with both in the military and corporate arenas spoke, thought and acted out of "pure and selfless love". That love was borne out of conviction, principle and an altruistic drive to help, grow, inspire and – yes – "force" me to be more of what I could ultimately be. That love is about a sacrifice, a willingness to be rejected, misunderstood and demonized and is strong enough to withstand the slings and arrows that misrepresent it's intention to the world. It is rarely appreciated in the day to day cauldron but shows itself years later with a sincere salute from those with the wisdom that comes from introspection. I could name them but suffice it to say I'm eternally grateful. So let me be the first to say to those whom I owe so much – Thanks for the REAL LOVE ladies and gentlemen – I am in your debt.



      December 2, 2010 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks for both the thoughtful words and astute insights Dan. Your words resonate with me because I know that but for the love of those who have selflessly invested in me I would not be where I am today. The truly great thing about loving leaders is that their interest in you isn't fleeting and will endure life's ordinary ups and downs that fracture relationships built on weaker foundations. Thanks for sharing Dan.


    Gwyn Teatro

    December 2, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Mike , so many view kindness, empathy, compassion and love as elements foreign to business environments and strong leadership. You have clearly demonstrated that nothing could be further from the truth. To me, far from being soppy and weak, love is tough, strong and amazingly resilient. And it gives us the strength to do things and risk things that, without it, we might never otherwise consider.
    Thank you for a heartening post.



      December 2, 2010 at 3:32 pm

      Hi Gwyn:

      All of your points are well taken and spot-on. It appears we've finally found some common ground 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts Gwyn.



    December 2, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    Dear Mike,

    The weak can never love.
    Without the love of women around us we are nothing.
    What the sense of life after all without LOVE.

    Thank you,



      December 2, 2010 at 5:58 pm

      Agreed…Thanks for stopping by Sami.


    Mark Oakes

    December 2, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Great post, MIke!

    Your readers have added many valuable comments to this thread. I agree with many of them. I’ll add another element that may clarify the periodic disconnect between the words ‘Leadership’ and ‘Love’.

    Many view Love as an emotion. From this vantage point there are quick associations to adjectives like ‘compassionate’, ’empathetic’, ‘supportive’, etc. Love, however, isn’t an adjective. It is a verb. As such, the essence of Love is Action and in this context leadership action takes many forms as outlined in your post. When a leader’s focus has the sole interest of others at heart (love) these actions take countless forms, many of which may appear on the surface to be contradictory to each other (E.g. compassion vs steely resolve).

    One final thought ~ Actions precede feelings. Leaders don’t have to “Feel like Loving” their people they just have to do it. Form this action habit, the leaders heart will eventually melt and the feeling is sure to follow.




      December 2, 2010 at 7:33 pm

      Hi Mark

      Thanks for the great insights Mark. I love the concept of viewing "love" as an action vs an emotion. By treating "love" as a verb and as such being actionable and intentional in its application, leaders can be more purposeful and consistent. Thanks for the astute observations Mark.


    Mike Henry Sr.

    December 3, 2010 at 9:14 am

    Thanks for the great post. You're right on regarding love. The emotion isn't the issue. The act of operating in the truest best interest of others is the issue. Anyone who doesn't care about others or who acts in their best interest for selfish reasons, just doesn't get it.


    Kris McDonell

    December 3, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    To say you are right on target is an understatement. Just look at how many comments you generated. Way to go out on a limb and include “love” with leadership. I admire this.


    Wendy Willimas

    December 29, 2011 at 11:43 am

    I agree.  There is a good book out by Tim Saunders: Love is the Killer App.. a style I have personally practiced in sales leadership since the late 1970s.  I hope this conversation continues and gets around.. It makes for a better world.
    xxWendy Williams / VP Sales, Partner/JR Resources

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