When I talk to people about loving leadership my experience is that the concept is always well-received. I’ve never met anyone who has objected to the idea of valuing people or said that they don’t do this. It appears like I’m putting words to something so simple and obvious that we all innately know but just don’t state very often.
So if loving leadership is common sense and something that most people would say they already do, why am I so focused on writing about it? Why not, having shared the simple reminder that true leadership is grounded in love, move on with other topics?
The answer is that there is a vast chasm between what loving leadership sounds like on the surface and what it actually is.
This article poses a thought exercise to help illustrate this radical difference.
Imagine your most important meeting
Imagine that you are about to have the most important meeting of your career. If you are a business leader, this meeting might be with the CEO of the company that, should they sign up, would instantly turn your business into an extraordinary success. You also see this CEO as a role-model, someone you deeply respect and look up to more than anyone in the world.
After a few days of anticipation, it’s finally time for the meeting. You are in the elevator, heading up to the 23rd floor. The time has come.
How alert, aware and intentional are you heading into that meeting?
You arrive on 23 and are asked to sit and wait.
5 minutes pass. Then 10. Soon it’s 20 minutes, and just as you are getting nervous that the CEO might not show up, he comes hurriedly through the door apologizing for being late.
How do you react to this? Are you frustrated with the CEO, struggling to pay attention to him, not making eye contact and not really listening to his explanation for why he was late? Or have you forgiven him and started to graciously engage?
After some small talk the CEO highlights a concern about the deal you are negotiating. He starts talking about going in a direction that is different to where you think things should go. Do you cut him off and tell him that he doesn’t understand and should listen to your perspective? Or do you deeply listen to what he is saying, seeking to understand where he is coming from, having an open mind that there could possibly be merit in what he is saying?
During the middle of this conversation the CEO makes a hand gesture and accidently knocks over a cup of coffee. It splashes onto the table and onto your clothes. How do you react? Do you hold a frustrated grudge against him for the rest of the meeting, or do you chalk it up as an accident and seek to reassure him in the midst of the embarrassment he must be feeling?
After the coffee incident the discussion gets back on track and you both converge on a path forward that seems great to both parties. But just before signing the deal, the CEO asks for some conditions that you believe are unreasonable for you to sign up to. How thoughtful are you in the way you hold your ground? Do you speak to him in a flippant way that could cause insult, or are you empathetic yet clear and firm that you can’t take on board these conditions?
You finally sign the deal! You are exhilarated – it is a dream come true. The CEO then shakes your hand, and asks if he can give you some feedback. You say yes, and he gives you feedback on some things you said and did in the meeting that might be problematic for you in future situations. How do you react? Does it get your back up and do you leave the meeting irritated and speaking to your colleagues about the nerve of that CEO? Or do you accept the feedback graciously, ponder it for any truths that might be contained that can help you grow, and then celebrate the great success with your colleagues, reaffirming to people just how highly you think of that CEO?
I want you to connect with the sense of admiration and value you have for that CEO, and how that plays out in all the little moments of the meeting.
A different scenario
I now want you to imagine another meeting.
This meeting has a similar purpose – looking to get alignment and agreement on something with the other person.
But this person is very different to the CEO.
This person is in your own organization and is junior to you. They are in another department, and there is a big disconnect between your two departments. Everything this other department does seems to work against the initiatives that you are driving in the company.
This particular person has been a thorn in your side. In the last company meeting they publicly raised a whole lot of issues that could give the perception that you and your department were doing a bad job. This person themselves has had a track record of very poor results, but they seem to constantly raise issues with the way all of the other people and departments around them are doing things.
The tone, manner, and nature of the interactions this person has with you gives the impression that the person does not like you. And the things they have done in the past give an impression that they are very focused on their own success and accolades at the expense of others in the company.
You are due to meet this person about a joint initiative that seems like it has a lot more benefit for that person and their department than you.
You are walking to the meeting room. How does your alertness, awareness, and intentionality compare to the meeting with the CEO?
The person turns up 20 minutes late. How do you react? With the same genuine graciousness you held for the CEO, or do you bear an angst against them?
The person highlights a whole bunch of concerns and suggests a different path to the one you have in mind. Do you listen as deeply and entertain this other path with as much openness as you did for the CEO?
Now the coffee is spilled. How do you react?
The other person suggests some completely unreasonable conditions that they think you should adhere to going forward. How empathetic are you in the way you hold firm to your position?
You finally agree on something that is satisfactory. And then at the end the person says they want to give you some feedback on how you handled parts of the meeting? What is your reaction to that feedback?
You leave the meeting room and go back to your desk. A colleague and good friend comes and asks you how your meeting was. How do you respond? Are you harboring any ill-will against the other person and do you make any negative remarks about the person?
Loving leadership is radical
In the fulness of what it means to be a loving leader, the answers to the questions in both parts of this thought exercise must be identical. You must genuinely value the worth of the irritating colleague to the same level as the role-model CEO. And the genuineness of this must play out in all of the little moments of the conversation.
Genuine loving leadership is radical. It needs explicit intention, a super amount of discipline, and a constant willingness to sacrifice yourself for others. You can’t be a loving leader without it being the primary of all of your motivations.
It is easy to value people you naturally like. It is easy to value people who are good to you. It is easy to value people when things are going well.
But it is hard to value people that you don’t naturally get along with. It is hard to value people who are not good to you. It is hard to value people when you are under intense pressures to get a particular result.
On the surface when we think about loving leadership, we tend to imagine the situations when it is easy. And we all could rightly call ourselves loving leaders in those situations.
But real loving leadership is about what happens in the hard situations. And it is much harder for us to look in the mirror and call ourselves loving leaders in those ones.
Trying is what counts
If you are grasping the radical nature of what I mean by loving leadership, then it will start to become clear how almost impossibly difficult it is to embody true loving leadership. In every moment, in every situation, no matter how you are feeling, never diminishing for a second the value you hold for every single person.
When I hold this gold standard up against myself, I come up short.
But it doesn’t mean that I throw away the standard and settle for near enough.
I strive to embody what it is to be completely loving in each situation, and when I fall short I acknowledge it, I make amends, I learn from it, I accept the forgiveness that is shown to me, and then I get back up and keep trying again.
I am far from perfect in this endeavor to be a loving leader. But one thing I do know is that aiming for that gold standard makes a difference. Having that intention and genuinely trying to hold to it has made a huge difference to me as a person, to my leadership, and to the impact on those around me.
Aim high, but do not fear
My purpose in writing this blog today is to encourage you to intentionally set your sights on the lofty goal of being a loving leader.
Without understanding the radical nature of loving leadership, it’s impossible to become a truly loving leader. You can’t become one by accident.
But the risk of laying out that gold standard is that it causes discouragement, because the bar seems so high.
I hope that I have been able to convey the one without causing the other in you. And if I have failed in this attempt, then I sincerely apologize.
To be a loving leader you don’t need to have everything together. You don’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to have an unwavering self-confidence (see my previous blog on healthy self-doubt).
All you need is to believe in the inherent value of people, despite all of their flaws and blemishes, and to have a heart to try and live that out in all the little moments. You will fail in this – we all do. But you will get back up and keep going, and drip by drip you will become closer and closer to that which you are striving to become. And along the way you will experience the most amazing ripple effects.