Hugging An Ethical Leader—10 Reasons For Doing It

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

I am transitioning to 100 percent hugging”
– says Jerry Greenfield co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream empire. Known for his reliance on ethics and values, his business plays an active part in the wider community and his ice cream sells globally.

Recently, he held a lecture and free ice cream social event at Brown-Lupton University Union in the ice creamUS, attracting over 800 people for a programme on values and ethics.

Welcoming the students to the event literally with open arms, he shared his Ben & Jerry’s journey. His humble personality makes his story easy to connect with. Well, you can hardly fail to connect with someone who instead of shaking your hand insists on a hug!

In London mid summer this year he spent time judging the short list for the company’s Europe-wide social enterprise competition, Join Our Core, in the same location used for the BBC series Dragons’ Den.

Those who meet him say he exudes a generosity and warmth that most find infectious. In a public setting for example, a steady stream of people nervously comes up to him and he’s quick to offer his bear-like hugs, plus a few kind words. They all walk away with smiles on their faces.

occupyYou could say Greenfield is not really an ethical leader since he no longer plays an active management role at Ben & Jerry’s. He concentrates on promoting the company’s social mission. This is expressed in support for campaigns that few other companies would regard as kosher, such as the Occupy movement and same-sex marriages.

Yet in another way he’s exactly that–an ethical leader pursuing his values, following his ethical integritycompass and making sure his company does too, although it is now owned not by him but the giant Unilever. The board remains separate and is mainly allowed to go its own way.

As for his transitioning to hugs, Greenfield is hardly on his own. Male hugging is now all the rage on  both sides of the Atlantic.  President Obama for example is an incorrigible hugger, but then you probably need to be one to claw your way to the White House.

If it moves hug it, seemed to be Bill Clinton’s motto but unfortunately it didn’t necessarily always stop there when it came to the ladies.

Depending on who you ask, male hugging is not yet universally liked. For example, a Canadian 2011 survey of advertising and marketing executives found just over half (58%) thought hugging colleagues at work was inappropriate. Most (72%) said they rarely, if ever, hug clients or business contacts.

A leadership hug is not quite as simple as it looks. Hugging releases oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone”. This makes those on the receiving end feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The chemical has also been linked to social bonding.

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, known to promote feelings of devotion and  trust. Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana explains “It really lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people.” [1]

So there are plenty of reasons why an ethical leader might adopt hugging to re-enforce their message. A proper deep hug, where the hearts are pressing together, produces important benefits such as

10 Reasons to hugEthical leaders who hug though, should make sure they do it with genuine warmth. Just going through the motions is almost worse than not doing it at all. They also need to realise hugging can be something of an acquired  taste.

For example, relatively few Asians commonly express their love with hugs. Many don’t miss physical affection, thinking of the custom of hugging, especially in public, as a silly display.

For some people it can be annoying to be touched by an over-enthusiastic ethical leader and therefore trying to hug everyone in sight can be highly inappropriate.

In simple terms: hug those close to you, don’t try and hug those who look pained and back away.

1 M. Trudeau, Human Connections Start With A Friendly Touch, NPR September 20, 2010

2 A. Polard, a  Unified Theory of Happiness, An East meets West approach, Psychology Today June 8, 2014.


Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leigh
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates ( pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.

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