Helena Clayton | Leadership and Love


Leadership and Love

16 Jan 2019, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

What role does love play in leadership? If love were at the heart of how we led, what might be possible? And what does ‘leading with love’ mean in practice?

At the end of 2018, based on research conducted over the summer, I ran a workshop exploring these questions. 76 participants, all working in organisations big and small …


We started by asking to what extent our workplaces have become harsh and unkind, and whether it felt true that ‘lovelessness has become the order of the day’ (1) in our organisations. And even whether, love aside, there’s much or any place for feelings and emotions? Has ‘the intellectual subjugation of emotion become civilisation’s triumph’? (2)

As well as becoming separated from our emotions we also explored how we were separate from each other, with our heads down, focusing on what it takes to get us through the day. Could we even be a bit like battery hens, each in our own little cage and, in our distress, either pecking out our own feathers or pecking at others? I work for one organisation that’s described as brutal and savage and so I find this an easy argument to buy into. (If you doubt this at all, do read Lab Rats by Dan Lyons or Hired by James Bloodworth which explore similar territory and present a picture of a working world that is unhuman in so many ways).

As a group, we could see there was much truth in this …and we were not ok with it.

What might love bring?

We asked what might be different if there was more love. Not only empathy or compassion. Specifically, not kindness or more listening. Love.

Compassion and empathy are, of course, Good Things. Essential. But I think when we use those words we dilute what’s really needed to counterbalance the culture that’s developing in some of our organisations. I don’t want us to water down what’s needed so that it runs off into the ground and disappears under the weight of all the difficulty and distress. I think we need something that can stand up to ‘brutal and savage’. Something that can meet the suffering in our organisations toe to toe, as an equal and opposite force. I think that has to be love. What else is up to the job?

So, love. Could we be bold, look love in the eye and ask what it could bring?

We did. We talked about what might be possible if love was at the heart of how we led. We imagined the damage that could be undone and the good that would be done.

As you’ll also see in the research report, we felt we’d ‘shine more brightly’ and there would be more personal joy and satisfaction. There’d be less competitiveness with each other. And the benefits would extend way beyond the person and relational so that ‘unusual responses to pervasive and complex challenges would emerge’.

Like my research respondents say in the report, we felt that love was core for us. ‘Our limbic systems are hard wired for love’ (2). After all ‘everyone wants to know more about love …what it means to love, what we can do in our everyday lives to love and be loved’ (1). Because ‘if we push away or abandon our sense of connection with others – our love – then there is no limit to the sadness, terror and pain [that] can produce’ (3). And so if love is core, than there has to be a way for it to show up in work, no?

Not easy though

Easy to say. Not easy to do.

Steve Coogan once said ‘my adage is that the edgiest word to use at the moment isn’t f**k, piss or shit. It’s love. That’s what really makes people’s buttocks clench’.

Valarie Kaur says ‘all great movements for social justice have strongly emphasised a love ethic. And yet people remain reluctant to embrace the idea of a transformative force. To them, love is for the naïve, the weak and the hopelessly romantic’.

And some of my research respondents felt that it would be flaky and unprofessional to bring love into work, feeling concerned that they’d be seen as weak and that the place for love was in the home.

And I do get it. Kenneth Williams said that ‘love is the most awful invasion of privacy’.

And yet, while honouring our naivety and paying attention to our buttocks I’m with George Monbiot when he says ‘we need to get embarrassing about [it] and overcome our own reticence …and risk upsetting people. We have a duty to break the awkward silence and talk about the subject other people want to avoid’.


That loving feeling

And, in our workshop, we also felt our way into love. We conducted our own experiment in the room. Could we, the 16 people gathered in the workshop on that day, 16 mostly-strangers … despite being new to each other, could we connect with each other in a way that was loving? Could we each find a way to see beyond the surface and into our depths? Could we create a connection of love in the space between us? And in way that would be utterly fitting for any relationship, whether in an organisation or outside it?

Oh, it turned out we really could. We did. We did what Mandy Len Catron suggests we do and ‘stepped into love’ with our heads as well as our hearts. We found that love for a complete stranger was right there, available to us.

And we left the workshop with a deep commitment to keep asking ourselves and others those questions. What role does love play in leadership? If love were at the heart of how we led, what might be possible? And what does ‘leading with love’ mean in practice?

A worthwhile inquiry, we felt.

If this interests you at all, take a look at my short research report on Leading From Love which you can download as a pdf.

You might also like to come along to DisruptHR in London on 5 March to hear about the need to reclaim love as a leadership competence or BelongCon in Brighton on 26 March on a similar theme.

I’ll be doing plenty more writing and speaking on 2019 on this topic – what role could love play in developing healthy organisational cultures – so you can always keep in touch via LinkedIn, by subscribing to my Newsletter or following me on Twitter using @HelenaClayton.

1. bell hooks is a radical feminist who writes a lot about love in the world and also about the relationship between men and women. Her books ‘All About Love’ and ‘The Will to Change’ are both excellent. (1)
2. ‘A General Theory of Love’ by Thomas Lewis is interesting on the ways that modern society flouts our most basic emotional laws. (2)
3. ‘Power and Love’ by Adam Kahane looks at how our toughest social problems can be approached with the complementary forces of the desire to achieve one’s purpose with the urge to unite with others. (3)

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