15 Nov What has love got to do with leadership?
Back 25 years ago, I was sitting in an MBA lecture on organisational behaviour. The professor asked “What is business?”. A fellow student responded “Men, money and machines.” Much laughter, not so much from the professor. A core text in the MBA was Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and we were taught to treat business like a battlefield and employees like soldiers, to destroy the competition and “to keep our friends close but our enemies closer”. Slightly paranoid in hindsight and deeply misguided in the 21st Century. Sun Tzu also said “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” I think we missed that bit in lectures.
I have been reading Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” as part of research for a book I am writing. I think he too has been misunderstood. His famous book tends to be summarised as a treatise on the survival of the fittest with an associated portrayal of human nature as competitive, ruthless, and selfish. But Darwin wrote a lesser known sequel “The Descent of Man” which discusses human evolution and his hopes for the future of humanity. In this book, he writes only twice of “survival of the fittest” but 95 times of love. Yes, love. I know right. Really, love? The word that has been stripped from business for decades and evokes discomfort and Oprah-like awkwardness of over-sharing and gratitude journals (which are a thing, and they work). Darwin wrote of selfishness 12 times, but 92 times of moral sensitivity. Of competition 9 times, but 24 times of mutuality and mutual aid.
Leadership theory has lost its way. Leadership cannot work without love. Does that make you uncomfortable? Removing love from leadership is like removing the engine from a plane mid-flight. Everyone dies. It doesn’t matter how high you’ve taken your business – if love is removed, it’s going to crash. You’ve lost all power because our power as a leader comes from our people. Our people are not a renewable power source to be thrown away when spent. Draining them dry with poorly designed work, unreasonable workloads, unclear expectations, ill-conceived change and cost-cutting initiatives, failure to genuinely communicate, tolerating bad behaviour, avoiding hard authentic conversations and replacing these with “quick fix” management fads. These practices are all too common in modern leadership. Sacrificing people on the altar of progress or growth is short-sighted, unethical and unloving. If something is broken in your team, at some level, love is missing. Honestly, think about that for a minute.
Putting down the authority of knowing and directing and picking up the humility of love lets your team see a leader who cares more about them than the job. People want to know they can trust you and see that you care and this need is grounded in hard neuroscience. Leadership is profoundly about how you make people feel, especially about themselves, at work. This requires heart and emotion and these have been unwelcome and absent for too long in how we frame leadership. We are good at thinking with our heads, but not with our hearts, eventhough we know the heart contains a “brain” system of connections and neurotransmitters that is highly complex, integrated and powerful.
The humanisation of work matters profoundly. We are no longer operating in an industrialised world and cannot afford to treat workers as machines anymore. We crave to be treated as whole people at work, to express ourselves and use our talents, to live and work in line with our values and purpose. We want to contribute something meaningful. In short, we seek to be human. The term “skinny love” refers to a relationship that does not have enough nourishment to survive. Corporate life is full of such relationships that lack nourishment from genuine human connection and caring. Leadership is not about you, it is an act of service. Are you willing to love your people deeply and visibly? If you are not, perhaps you need to reflect whether you should really be in a leadership role and your honest motivation for holding the title.