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Why Love is the Ultimate Leadership Quality

by Apr 14, 20170 comments

I recently conducted a study of business literature and management journals to discover the most-often referenced “Top qualities of a great leader”.

Here, alphabetically arranged,  is a composite list of what I found. A great leader, it is said, must be:

Committed to Goals
Good Communicator
Results Oriented

If your leadership heroes are Patton, McArthur, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, John Wayne and the Terminator, then this will line up nicely with your worldview. (One can even find a top 10 list of characteristics of terrible leaders!)

Next, I researched the “Top qualities of a great relationship/marriage”. Here, alphabetically arranged, is a composite list of what I discovered:

Generous and Serving Selflessly
Good Listener
Growing Together
Honest and Ethical
Makes you Feel Special
Playful, Adventurous and Fun
Respectful and Independent

It’s striking how different these two lists are from each other. It’s as if we are expected to behave as two different people – as a leader, on the one hand, and as a spouse, parent and friend, on the other.  Of course this is an illusion – as if it were possible for us to wake up in the morning as Doctor Jekyll and then go to work as Mr. Hyde. The list does have one similarity – honesty – but for the rest, they are markedly different.

I consider great leaders in the same way that I look at high-performance athletes. To be at the top of one’s leadership game one needs to be in peak condition. If you are suffering from physical ailments such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart issues, shortness of breath, and so on, then it is impossible to contribute the kind of energy necessary for high-performance leadership.

Since the purpose of a great leader is to establish great relationships (with employees, customers, shareholders, vendors, regulators, the media, the environment, etc.) why do we have two entirely separate sets of attributes for building relationships in different areas of our lives? If personal relationships at home are poor, it is inevitable that the strain and sadness – perhaps even anger – will be brought to work, and this will be evident to one’s colleagues. If a leader cannot build successful relationships at home, why would we think they could do so at work? Great leadership is about building great, deep, and inspiring relationships, and the rules for doing so are universal.

Most of the leaders I coach are incredibly successful, but many of them have paid a heavy price for their success – they are out of shape, or they have poor (sometimes non-existent) spousal, parental or familial relationships – and sometimes all of these.

We are spending $170 billion a year on leadership development in North America and there are 244,000 books on about leadership. Yet, leadership is broken everywhere. All this spending and cajoling has resulted in unhappy employees outnumbering happy ones by two-to-one – a disastrous return on investment. As Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman has written, “The rise of leadership as an object of our collective fascination has coincided precisely with the decline of leadership in our collective estimation.” Partly this is because we teach leadership like engineering – a sort of cause-and-effect, mechanical formula: if you do these three things, then these outcomes will occur.

One of my clients, a global pharmaceutical company, recently shared with me a copy of their leadership development program, created in partnership with one of the world’s largest consulting companies. It began with a clear statement of the program’s single objective: “To align individual performance with corporate goals”. He wasn’t encouraging me to learn from it; he was showing it to me because he was embarrassed and ashamed.

So leadership experts and academics are searching for the next big thing.  They’re looking at teaming, collective leadership, “leadership competencies”, generational difference management (see my blog on this), engagement (and my blog on this), to name a few.  But, there is no “next big thing”.  There is only one thing – at home or at work – it is called love.  It can come in many forms – the second list covers a lot of them – and one could add many more – but love sums up the essential quality of a great leader – love for colleagues, love for customers, love for the environment, love for the contribution they are making to a better world – in fact, love for everything good in the world in which we are blessed to live.

There is just one thing we need to teach leaders who wish to be great and to inspire others, and that is how to love.  Love is not about maximizing what you can get;  it is about maximizing what you can give.

Our challenge then, is to understand how profoundly we have misunderstood leadership and how counterproductive and dangerous this misunderstanding has become; to rethink our entire approach to teaching and practicing leadership, and to have the courage to lead in this inspiring way. This will be no mean feat. And our future depends on it.