Timeless Principle #3: Leadership Is Love

My son, Scott, and I have been working together on a book about six timeless principles that are essential to great leadership. These half-dozen principles reveal fundamental truths about working with others that every leader should know and practice. In this blog I’m introducing the third principle: “Leadership Is love.”

The first two principles—“Leadership is a partnership” and “A good leader catches people doing things right”—were revolutionary when I began talking about them in the 1970s and 1980s. Today these ideas are gaining a wider acceptance. But the third principle—”Leadership is love”—is still revolutionary.

People get nervous when they hear the word love applied to the workplace. They doubt that you can approach the tough reality of leading people and organizations with something as soft and fuzzy as love. What happens when things get hard? What happens when people don’t behave well, or when financial results aren’t what you need them to be? Many leaders believe that detachment is more useful than love in the business world.

I disagree. At Blanchard we believe that loving and respecting people leads to meaningful relationships and long term, positive results. Playing it safe by keeping people at arms-length simply doesn’t inspire the kind of commitment that creates great organizations.

I feel so passionately about this principle that I even wrote a book with a leader who shares our “Leadership is love” philosophy: Colleen Barrett, president emerita of Southwest Airlines. We called our book Lead with LUV and spelled it that way because LUV is the stock symbol of SW Airlines. Southwest Airlines is one of the few companies I’ve seen over the years that puts love into action. They are committed to loving their people, loving their customers, and loving their purpose: To connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel.

Loving Leaders Versus Cranky Leaders

Like Colleen, the best leaders realize that they are here to love, not to be loved; they are here to serve, not to be served. Great leaders make the goals clear, roll up their sleeves, get their egos out of the way, and do whatever it takes to help people win.

Non-loving leaders—what my son, Scott, likes to call “cranky CFOs”—believe people are like pawns on a chessboard to be manipulated for the purpose of winning above all else. This approach may work for a while, but in the long run it’s a losing strategy because great results are only sustainable when people feel respected and valued.

We’ve experienced both kinds of leaders in our organization. Years ago, we hired a smart, driven person to be our company president. The only problem was, he didn’t love our people. Morale in the company plummeted under his leadership. After his departure, our company thrived.

That’s when my wife, Margie, and I realized that leadership isn’t just about love, it is love. Margie sums it up beautifully: “It’s loving your mission, it’s loving your people, it’s loving your customers, and it’s loving yourself enough to get out of the way so that other people can be magnificent.”

Unconditional Love in the Work Setting

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the “Leadership is love” principle is that this love is unconditional and not based on people’s performance. This means that you extend love and respect to people before they’ve earned it, while they’re still making mistakes. When you have love for someone in a work setting, you see them as a whole package, warts and all. You start from the assumption that God doesn’t make junk. You let people know that they’re fundamentally okay, and that you are on their side. This fosters trust.

Over time, leading with love transforms an organization’s culture. Direct reports emulate the leader’s loving behavior and start extending care and respect to others. This creates a culture where people feel safe, seen, and acknowledged. People throughout the organization become passionate about the company.

When your people are passionate about your organization, they share that passion with clients and customers. Those clients and customers become raving fans who express their love for your company to their friends, family, and followers on social media. In turn, your organization thrives. So, remember to lead with love!

If you’d like to hear more on this topic, join Scott and me for our 6 Enduring Principles of Leadership webinar on Thursday, May 25, 2023 at 7:00 AM PDT. The event is free, courtesy of Blanchard. And if you’re attending the ATD23 International Conference in San Diego, be sure to drop by the Blanchard booth and say hello!

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