Leadership is Love

Employees who felt they worked in a loving, caring culture reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork.*

Once upon a time, there was a manager who inherited an employee who was clearly not a fit for her position. She had been shoehorned into it. The employee knew it. Her manager, my client, knew it. The employee needed to find another position with the company or move on. As time went on it was an increasingly painful experience. They both continued to suffer from her lack of performance and insecurity.

First, do no harm.

The hold-up was that “the powers to be” had to finalize a letter about her options, in the appropriate language. I can only assume this was to limit liability. They had been working, or should I say, not working on this for four months. My client and her employee couldn’t proceed without it.

Every time my client checked in they acknowledged it was not a difficult or time-consuming activity. There were just more pressing issues – but not for my client and her employee.

Hang with me here.

Instead of leaving those we serve hanging, what if we deliberately choose to relieve them of undue stress? Do this even when we have bad news to deliver.

It’s not human or loving to let them leave work with a knot in their stomach. We all know that feeling of a heavy heart. They might lose sleep that night because of uncertainty we could alleviate. Let’s challenge ourselves to do something about it, for them, not just to get it off the to-do list.

All leaders aren’t built the same way. Some allow their challenges and choices to result in unnecessary discomfort for the people they serve. This has a bottom-line impact.*

What do our choices at work say about us?

More and more companies like PepsiCo, Zappos, and Whole Food Market are embracing the words love and caring in their corporate values. Let’s wrap our heads around that. Love and business don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Business can even include the noble aspiration to be “like family,” though this phrasing must be used thoughtfully.

We could say I’m talking about is compassion, empathy or thoughtfulness. When I say love I don’t mean the emotion, but the word love used as a verb.

The Greeks called this type of love, agape, i.e., choosing what is right and best for the other person, rather than what we want or feel like doing. It is about behavior, not feelings. Yes, it requires open-heartedness. We can call that feeling, but I suggest that we choose (a verb) to open our hearts or not. The study I reference below suggests leaders attend to the emotional culture of their organization as well as the cognitive culture. Let’s ready ourselves.

A version of this post originally ran on the Lead Change Group site February 14, 2011.

*Based on the longintudinal study “What’s Love Got to Do With It?: The Influence of a Culture of Companionate Love in the Long-term Care Setting” surveying 185 employee, 108 patients and 42 patient family members. While this study took place in a long-term care setting — which many people might consider biased toward the “emotional” — the findings hold true across industries.

***I’m a human being who happens to be a speaker, trainer, consultant, and coach, committed to bringing more humanity to the workplace. It’s time.


Mary Schaefer
Mary Schaefer
Mary is a fierce advocate for developing workplaces where the human beings who happen to be employees, thrive. Her speaking, coaching, training, and writing all focus on making the most of what human beings can contribute to an organization through their distinctive energy and creativity, while at the same time meeting their own specific needs for meaningful work. As the principal of her own business, Mary is a guide to increase empowerment and cultivate productive manager/employee interactions. Drawing from her experience as an HR manager, her work centers on talent development, performance management, and a positive employee experience. She is a co-author of the book, "The Character Based Leader." Mary has presented at the Inspiring Women in STEM Conference and is also a TEDx speaker. Her clients include small businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies. Mary has a master's degree in human resources management and is a certified HR professional. This Midwest farmer's daughter is a big fan of homegrown cantaloupes, gapingvoid art, and LinkedIn.

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  1. Mary, there aren’t enough ?’s in the world for this one. So thankful that more and more organizations are embracing the word love (in action) and I agree it is about behavior. Some of us have been very fortunate to have been in enviroments that embodied a culture of love. Some of us have been fortunate enough to have leaders/mentors and coaches who embody love. Thankfully I did experience this if only for a very small part of my 25+ corporate career. When we lead/behave with love as a guiding value, I think we also need to bring along it’s sibling, “honesty”, especially when we need to have difficult conversations. Delivering honesty with love is the whole, well, for lack of a different emoji, the whole ?! Thank you

    • Hi Shelley. I so appreciate you commenting about when you have experienced work environments that embodied love.

      Thank you for bringing up the point about honesty, too. Yes, it is love’s beloved sibling. Re: honesty and difficult conversations, I’m reminded of the quotation from Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

      I’ve had managers argue with me that they didn’t want to give feedback because it would make the person feel bad. (“Unclear is unkind.”) Or those that didn’t think they needed to apply care to how they presented feedback because that would be sugar-coating it. Honesty delivered compassionately is not sugar-coating. There are no exceptions where love is not relevant. Thanks for bringing the sibling, honesty, into the convo. The whole ?, indeed. (Yet another emoji for the request list – panini and now enchilada 🙂