Why love is at the heart of leadership.


Why love is at the heart of leadership.

“A company is stronger if bound by love than by fear.” – Herb Kelleher, cofounder of Southwest Airlines

Perhaps the two most important emotions relevant to leadership practice are fear and love. Coupling the word “love” with leadership can feel uncomfortable, even creepy. Stepping in to Oprah territory with connotations of group hugging, over-sharing, singing Kumbaya and other corporate cult-like behaviour. But love is central to leadership. As an emotion and as a behaviour. Even in the most severe and extreme environments, like armed conflict, love has the strongest place. Lieutenant Colonel Joe Ricciardi stood before his battalion of 1,000 soldiers deployed with clearing roads of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan, and gave them one simple message: You need to love one another. Ricciardi went on to do a PhD on this topic and found that a team member who feels loved by his boss is significantly more likely to see his boss as a good leader. Leading your employees is a natural outgrowth of loving them. He defined love as intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Love is an enacted emotion, not simply a feeling. To love is to feel and act lovingly. The concept of love doesn’t define well, as it morphs and changes through life experience. Love is not controlling or possessive, nor is it about ownership. Love is accepting and creating space for the other. Love is also a powerful and permanent neurological condition.

A group of 4 to 8 year-olds were asked the question, “What does love mean?”

  • “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” Billy – age 4
  • “Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.” Terri – age 4
  • “If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.” Nikka – age 6
  • “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” Jessica – age 8


Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four year old child whose next door neighbour was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his Mother asked what he had said to the neighbour, the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry”. The gift of holding space and honouring emotion from a four year old. When do we lose this capacity and shield-up, guarding ourselves from the emotion of others and even our own?

The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. Fear is debilitating. Fear drives us to act in stupid ways because we’re afraid of being stupid. It makes us shake our head in shame as we remember something “dumb” we said six years ago. We experience a panorama of emotions as humans, but they fundamentally come either from love or fear. Confidence, courage, hope—all love. Worry, pride, self-recrimination—all fear. Fear drives the ego, but love drives life. In fact, love drives all that matters in life. John Lennon said, “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance… all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”

I acknowledge that emotional distance can feel safer. More “professional”. And that a balance needs to be struck. All heart without results is weak. All results without heart is ugly. Being all about results is leading all with the head. Hard conversations can feel easier without emotional layers or investment. Words like love can be misconstrued in this era of #MeToo and manufactured fear about false accusations. Showing love through leadership will not leave you open to harassment claims or messy entanglements. Arms-length leadership is neither inspiring nor compelling leadership. Leaders must love to truly gain the commitment and trust of others.

Humans are emotional creatures and 100% of employees are humans. It is the nature of humanity, being human, that we feel things. The human experience has taught us that sometimes the moment you share something, as you’re sharing it, it dissolves. It goes away. It takes a certain kind of leader to be able to hold a space for someone and listen and also have the capacity to let go of it and not hold someone to that emotion.

“It seems like it’s almost doing a disservice to humanity, and to each other, to not provide some kind of platform where people can talk about these things together and process them in some small way.” Live Gray

Brandon Smith writes about four types of love leaders should have:

  • Love the mission and purpose of the organisation. They feel an emotional connection to the “why” of the organisation and are comfortable sharing that passion with others.
  • Love the clients they serve. They care about their customers enough to be curious about their customers’ needs and how the organisation might be able to make their lives better.
  • Love their employees. They feel a deep commitment and care for the people they lead.
  • Love their jobs. They consider themselves blessed to have the privilege to touch so many lives and lead others to something better. Their role brings them joy and a personal sense of purpose.


It turns out that leading with your heart, balanced by logic and reason, is a long-term strategy that produces trust, commitment and engagement. So in 2019, is it time you put some heart back in to your leadership?

In 2019, Human Psychology will launch a new leadership concept – Spirit. A leadership manifesto for the 21st Century. One that allows people to bring their whole selves to work, transforming human capital in to human talent, and that honours wellbeing as a person’s core purpose. It is time to bring our hearts and minds to work.

No Comments

Post A Comment