Helena Clayton | How did you learn about love?



How did you learn about love?

02 Jun 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

An emerging thread of my research with leaders about love and the role it could and should play in our organisations is what our own intimate connection is with love. Our own personal social history of love.

Where did we learn about love? What have we come to understand about love? How does it feel when we love – and when we are loved – and where were those feelings first laid down? Who taught us, by words or deeds, about love?

Working on the basis that ‘we lead out of who we are’ and ‘we see the world as we are, not as it is’, our own personal connection to love has to be part of the leadership picture. Who we are, in relation to love …

And so, in series of leadership interviews, the next phase of my research, I start by asking: ‘and how did you learn about love in your life?’  Or’ what is it about you and the way you were raised that means you’re able to talk about love?’  Then I listen to stories about what has shaped them into the leaders they are now – and also something about how come they’re the sort of leader who is ok to be interviewed about love in the first place.  Which is not something everyone can do.

Buy why do this?

The past is always present

When I begin a long leadership programme, a new coaching relationship or a piece of team development,  and also at the start of the 2 year MSc I work on, I generally begin with asking people to produce a leadership lifeline, or timeline. ‘Going back right to the time of your birth  – and maybe even before – and coming right up to the present day, what has shaped you to become the leader you are today?’

Almost always, some of the most influential people or events come from their early years, sometimes their earliest years.  And there is so often a red thread that connects those experiences with how they show up today, how they treat people or why they take a stand for the things they do.

That’s maybe no great surprise to you (although it is to many participants who are sometimes deeply struck by how the threads of the past find their way into their present…) and much in the literature bears this out. And of course, it’s the basis for psychodynamic work.  For example, Riane Esler, in her latest work explores how we might create cultures that are not based on domination and identifies the crucial importance of the early years of life in this . She says ‘that what people in society consider normal or abnormal, moral or immoral, and even possible or impossible is profoundly affected by the kinds of relationships children experience and observe’.

It’s argued (although maybe not by geneticists) that we learn pretty much most things from our primary caregivers – our birth parents or adopted parents – and also our surrogate parents like nannies, grandparents or even Boarding Schools if we spent sufficient time with them in our early years. Although this isn’t only the kind of learning where Mum says ‘love means x’ but the sort of learning that we absorb through what we see and experience.

And that’s how we learn about love.  If we feel love is all about care and nurture, we picked that up somehow from our environment.  If for us love is more about holding clear boundaries and pushing people to be their best, then we probably learned that from our childhood too.  Those of us who say ‘love is at the heart of everything, including leadership’… what did we observe and experience that means we see things that way?  And those who say ‘no, categorically, love has no place in organisations’, what did they experience or observe that might give us a clue to what they believe or value in their leadership?

One leader I spoke to this month said:

‘I learned about love by watching my mum and dad who adored each other – and while there were often spats, they never left us in any doubt that they loved each other and so I grew up with a particular model of what love meant’.


‘For me, the way my mum was a fierce protector of me in the face of being bullied at school for a speech impediment – and she was always there and gave me constant encouragement – has meant that I hold a similar role for my own team and for other people now’.

So we learn healthy ways of demonstrating love in our leadership.

We also learn less healthy forms of love.

‘Negative Love’

Roger Stuart has written persuasively about how the wounds we carry as adults from Adverse Childhood Experiences (also called ‘slow trauma’), ‘regular’ things like poverty and divorce and also less regular abuse or violence are retriggered in us as adults by all sorts of experiences, including, significantly for us in leadership and OD, during the process of organisational change.

But these forms of slow trauma also teach us about what love means because as children we unconsciously adopt the negative as well as the positive behaviours, belief systems, moods, attitudes and insecurities of our caregivers in order to be loved. In the biologically hardwired seeking for love.

This is what The Hoffman Process calls ‘negative love’. Because as children we unconsciously mirror our parents, we inevitable pick up their unhealthy as well as healthy patterns of behaviour – in relation to ambition and success, say, or how men and women should treat each other, how we should to communicate and how we manage our emotions, including anger and loss.

In relation to love, if we had an absent parent as a child, it will have left us with particular messages about what love is and isn’t. If we were witness to some form of violence as a child, even if we are not violent as adults, it will have taught us something about love.  At some level – even if takes some detective work to track back and find the links.

And these patterns of behaviour pass from generation to generation – our parents did the same things that were done to them, as we do what was done to us – and we are often entirely unaware of this in our lives.

So as Esler says, the neural patterns for our minds are greatly influenced by our environment, particularly our early years. Who we are is shaped through the interaction of our genes with our environment over the course of early development and into adulthood.

So the past is always present.  And yes, that means in our leadership.

Self as instrument

And also,  from the field of Organisational Development comes the idea of ‘self as instrument’ – the view that our Self shows up in our work and is highly influential, the idea that we can know all the tools and models and frameworks but the thing that creates most impact is who we are.

‘Our use of self begins with our self awareness, what we know about who we are. This includes how well we know our whole self; our personas, shadows, personality, styles, attitudes, values, knowledge, skills, and identities. How much each of our ‘self’ components show up affects what we see, how we know, what we do, and ultimately how we execute our role’.

And this would include our awareness of the role love has played in our lives. Even taking some of the words from this list above, I’m thinking of questions like: what is my core attitude to love within and also outside of family or romantic connection? What aspects of love have I put into shadow and don’t allow myself to express or feel or see as valid and criticise myself for – and judge others for? Is my identity one of someone who is loving – and does my identity as a leader includes love – and if so, in what way?

For me

Much of this is certainly true for me. I can trace back the reasons I am writing and consulting in the area of love and leadership back to my experience of my early and teenage years. And I can see the ways that I came to understand love have been so shaped by my parents and the ways they were.

I’ve written before about some significant people, places and experiences over the last 15 years or so that have hugely influenced me, providing me with a crucible, a liminal experience for me to go right into who I am and work out who I want to be on the other side. And these are places where, in particular, I have really worked out what love looks as feels like, for me.

But my early personal social history has also been core. I was born to a mum who was acutely grieving the death of her first-born son, her first child, who died just before I was born, and she was also probably struggling with severe depression. This had a direct impact on the way I was loved by her – and in turn, it has impacted the way that I see and feel love as an adult. It took me a very long time, for example, to acknowledge that being loving also meant feeling, accepting and welcoming sadness and loss. My own and that of others. My dad’s ‘chin up’ attitude to all things difficult – including my brother’s suicide when Richard and I were both teenagers – also meant that I had to work hard in later life to access the parts of me that were not only a tough and assertive form of love but a soft, tender and vulnerable form.

And yes, that translated into my work and my leadership.  As I started to recognise these patterns in me from the past I could see that I was developing a bit like one of those trees on the coast that have grown in one direction, growing only inland, shaped by the constant sea winds.  My practice with people was tough and clear and direct – and it often lacked compassion and softness.  That’s changed enormously.  But if I hadn’t spotted and worked on that tree, then …

So, what love looks and feels like for me will not be what it looks and feels like for you. And it’s worth us each getting to know what our love fingerprint is, if we really want to intentionally build love into our leadership.

For you

 If you were doing a Lifelines activity and were asked, what has shaped you to become the person/leader you are today, what would you note down?

And if the question was: and what did you learn about love – who taught you what about love?  …what would you add in?

What about this one: ‘where was there love in your life? Where and how did you feel a lack of love? And how has that shaped how you love today?’

Or: ‘if you feel that love has no role to play in the workplace, as some people do, can you identify where that belief comes from?’

And finally: ‘what forms of love do you want to role model and hand on to others?


Heaps more to say on this but I’m trying to keep my pieces a little shorter at the moment 🙂

I’m now taking booking for Cohort 2 of Leading with Love, starting in January. Bold – and exploratory and practical – it’s designed for a small group of leaders to explore what their leadership might look like with love at its heart, you can find details and book your place here.

Helena x

  • Laura Sly

    Loved reading this Helena. Great questions at the end. Think it takes considerable courage to consider these things. Thank you.

    • Helena Clayton

      Thank you Laura, and yes, courage, exactly so.

  • Noelle Goldman-Jacob

    Thanks Helena, spot in and very resonant – not for the same experience – mine was very different, but because I see my of attitude to love shaping all that I see and do, and share with others in my life and practice. Staying aware and awake to how this has shaped me (love the image of the tree) is central.

    • Helena Clayton

      Thanks Noelle, and yes love your phrase ‘staying awake and aware to how x has shaped me’.

  • Mark Lovatt

    Thank you Helena – what a fabulous and thought provoking read. This feels so aligned with where I have got to with my dissertation and how I found myself firmly ‘in’ it and thinking about how my experiences with love can shape my onward leadership and OD journey.

    • Helena Clayton

      Ah, thanks Mark and I’d love to talk more with you about your exploration. And you know can can call at any time while you finish this piece of work, right? (and at any other time, too, obviously!)
      H x


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