Helena Clayton | Acceptance, love and leadership



Acceptance, love and leadership

22 Aug 2018, Posted by Helena Clayton in Monthly Blog

What do we mean, ‘leading from love?

Inquiring into love in our organisations via a new research survey, I start by asking what we mean by love. I ask ‘although my initial research tells me this is a difficult question to answer, nevertheless, how would you define love at work?’

I am not offering a definition, like some surveys might. This is intentional. I want to have people think about this for themselves. But I am also thinking about it for myself. What do I mean by love, in the context of work, organisations, leadership…

Thinking out loud …

I don’t fully know. But I do know that I’m informed by many sources, many influences. Here are just three of them, on the theme of acceptance, and I’m using this space to think aloud about them. Join me in the comments? I’d love to know what you think too.

Unconditional Positive Regard

From humanistic therapeutic approaches comes Carl Rogers’ attitude of ‘unconditional positive regard’. This has the underpinning assumption that people are inherently good and trying to do their best and that we should actively facilitate a climate where everyone is able to flourish. If healing occurs within Roger’s humanistic therapeutic space, then it’s mostly because of the attitude of unconditional positive regards that the therapist has for the individual which includes empathy, acceptance and genuineness. This feels like love to me.

The question for me, then, is can this be a helpful attitude for leaders? Could we and should we cultivate this in our leadership and in our organisational culture?

Sure, the workplace is not a therapeutic space. And the leader’s role is not to heal. But it’s a cop out, to say it has no relevance for leaders. Don’t we each want to be accepted for who we are as a person, regardless of what we say or do? Isn’t that a core human need? And where there are needs, there must also be responsibilities. And therefore a human responsibility to do our best to offer it to others. Including as a leader, no? Why wouldn’t the responsibility that we might feel in other relationships also extend to when we are with human beings in our workplace?

And Rogers wasn’t idealistic. He didn’t expect therapists to exhibit this all the time …it wasn’t all or nothing, and it probably occurred at some times and not others, he said. True for most people I think, and certainly true for me. I have to actively choose that attitude, I don’t think it comes naturally.

But it’s developable. Just as a trainee counsellor in person centred counselling might ask ‘but what can I do to try to develop greater unconditional positive regard for my clients’, isn’t that also a good question for those of us responsible for managing and leading people?


And then the work of John Heron, and his transpersonal approaches, whose model of facilitation is the core approach I draw on when running advanced facilitation programmes.

In The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook, he identifies 18 different modes and dimensions of facilitating, one of which is ‘Valuing’. This means creating a climate within a group so that people feel affirmed and valued and respected. It means acknowledging and showing appreciation for people’s comments and contributions. It means to ‘validate or confirm the worth of the client’s person, qualities, attitudes or actions’. This deep valuing of someone feels like love to me.

And of all his 18 different dimensions, Heron says that Valuing is the most important — and that learning, action, group development etc can’t take place without it as it sets up a culture of trust where there is less fear. We can only grow and change where these is no fear. And again, like Rogers, he considers the ‘personhood’ of those we are working with.

The leap to leadership from facilitation isn’t a big stretch. ‘Leader-as-facilitator’ is an increasingly accepted contemporary approach to leading for a less hierarchical and a more democratic working world.

And so, for leaders …isn’t it the case that when people feel valued and appreciated then they’ll give of their best? That people are at their best when they feel accepted for all of who they are? And that we all want to work somewhere where we can be genuine?

Radical Acceptance

In both of these approaches, there’s something of ‘radical acceptance’, a term that comes from Buddhist teachings and encourage us to welcome absolutely everything, no matter what, even the parts of us that we don’t like. To accept what is and not hold out for what should be. In ourselves and also in others and in what life brings us. This level of acceptance feels like love to me.

Although tricky for leaders when organisations are predicated on a version of performance that’s all about what someone — a CEO, a leadership team — thinks should be. Difficult when a performance management framework is built around pre determined standards of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Not easy when organisations seek to mold us into who they need us to be.

But this is bringing to the surface, for me, the difference between how we treat or manage behaviour and how we consider the person. How we need to separate the doing from the being. Is that possible in leadership?

Time and time again, I have come to see that the reason someone behaves a certain way is so often because of their story or history. It may not excuse the behaviour, but it does usually explain it. Are we big enough to accept the person and not the behaviour? Don’t they offer this phrase to parents (I’m not one) …’I love you but I don’t like what you just did’. What’s the leadership version of that I wonder? Is that what I’m writing about here?

So what for leaders?

I’m thinking out loud here as I write. …and would love to know what you think about the ‘so what’ of all this for leaders. What comes to mind right now is:

Maybe, a leader needs to be able to apply some of the principles of acceptance to themselves first. What’s our own relationship to acceptance? What would it be like for each of us to value and affirm ourselves, consider what conditions we each might need for growth and flourishing, think about whether people in our lives (anyone?) see us with unconditional positive regard. I have met many a leader who, when introduced to the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, say, as a tool for creating change in their organisation suddenly sees clearly (and sometime with a shock) that, in their own lives they rarely if ever give praise, say thank you, or verbally point out when someone does something well. Even at home or with friends. So start with self.

Or to practice paying more active attention to seeing the person as well as the behaviour, to look deeper/wider than the action and to connect with the whole of that person in front of them. To practice feeling a human connection with the person while seeing the behaviour as part-but-separate. To be curious about how the person in front of them was more than a particular behaviour? A form of ‘love the person challenge the behaviour’.

And maybe it’s giving more time to think about the culture they want to create in a team and how affirming, appreciating and valuing people for who they might contribute to greater success. What would it be like for a senior team to take these three concepts and explore for themselves what value they might bring to their leadership? And then to take that conversation to their own teams and see what they think and feel about the themes of acceptance and affirmation. To start to talk about how we want to treat each other and be treated so that we can do our best work, be free of fear, feel accepted and flourish? Talk about it.

As I say, thinking out loud. Next time, a different set of influences, this time on the theme of boundaries, tough love and accountability as a form of love in leadership.
If you fancy hearing from my research and joining the discussion with a group of like-minded people, come along to Leading from Love, on 16 November in Brighton. See you there, maybe?

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