Helena Clayton | Love-as-care




03 Nov 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

Care.  What does that bring up for you?  Women’s work, maybe?  Not really part of the role of leadership?

In my 2018 research, when I asked people what love meant to them, the most-used word was care.

You know that I’m not a fan, right, of using care and empathy, compassion … in place of love.  I’m an advocate of holding fast to LOVE.

But because ‘care’ was right there when I asked people how they defined love, and because I have been reading a powerful book by Madeleine Bunting on the crisis in our provision of social care,  let’s take it as way to explore love.

Here’s where my thinking has been this week:

  1. Care (love) is now part of the deal for leaders

The role of a leader has changed – the psychological contract has shifted.  No longer do leaders and managers only have a focus on targets and performance and efficiencies and productivity but now they are required to be responsible for the culture, the way a team feels, the levels of psychological safety in a group and the wellbeing and even mental health of individuals.

We see this shift in other professions too, of course.  Doctors and surgeons are now required to have a bedside manner.  Teachers have an increasingly pastoral role with their children and students.

But as leaders in organisations, perhaps we didn’t sign up for this.  The rules of the road for those in senior and influential roles are still mostly based on seeing to the technical aspects of how an organisation is run.

So, drawing on Bunting’s work and thinking about care and definitions of care:

Bright and dark: the bright version of care is that it’s compassion, nurture, support, listening, attending to, looking after and looking out for someone.  This came out strongly in my research.  The less bright side is that care also requires us to face our vulnerability, dependence and suffering,  and ‘to remain steadfast in the face of life at its most painful’.  We find this difficult.  Why?  Because the impulse to be kind ‘comes from the part of ourselves that we are most disturbed by – that part that know how much assurance and (genuine) reassurance is required to sustain our sense of viability’.   We can’t bear to face our own vulnerability.

Caring for and caring about: just as we say that love is a verb, care is also about action – practical activity supporting someone’s welfare.  What do you DO (that a CCTV would be able to observe) that is an act of care for the people you work with? In what ways are you caring for them?  And it is also a matter of intention – caring about them and this is one assessment that only each of us can make.  Do I really care or do I know I’m just supposed to?  I read somewhere the other day that we don’t have to love the people we work with, just act in loving ways.

Individual and universal: as leaders can we find it in us to accept and welcome the individual who really pisses us off in meetings; can we find unconditional positive regard for each member of the team, even the so-called difficult ones. But more universally,  can we connect with a sense of loving people for who they are and not what they do – simply their human-being-ness and independent of any other attribute or characteristic? Do you feel a sense of caring responsibility for all the people in your team, and organisation and its supply chain right through to the office cleaners who come in at night and the lorry drivers and the families of the team in Bangladesh who run your complaints department…

Bunting defines care, and paints a compelling picture of the rising needs for (good) social care in our society and the crisis that will arise of we don’t meet it.  And what this leaves me curious to think more about is whether our organisations can pivot quickly to respond to the rising needs for love-as-care in in organisations.  And, more importantly, whether leaders see and feel that this is their job.


  1. Care (love) is gendered

In webinars and workshop and in my Leading from Love programme, I explore some of the many blocks to love in organisations.  One, I usually suggest, is that we have come to see love as gendered.   Love-as-care has come to be seen as women’s work.  And the term ‘women’s work’ is a term of denigration.  But how so?

Bunting’s book provides a lens on why this might be the case. Perhaps it’s because:

  • During the 19th century kindness came to be seen as something soft and emotional and it become associated with femininity, while men were expected to be public spirited. Kindness become the pursuit of women and was marginalised in public and professional life.
  • Care is not really seen as work. Bunting quotes the feminist economist Nancy Folbre who argues that while men’s activities at work were governed by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, the corollary for women was the ‘invisible heart’: care has been framed as instinctive, biological, natural and moral – and so it’s not work in the narrow sense as traditionally understood by economists.
  • The world of work has been shaped by men, to whom care work did not traditionally fall – it was historically outsourced to women – and so it has never been given a legitimate role or space in the workplace. We have a ‘management ethos of competition, drive, goals and focus’ which creates a very narrow a field of attention and squeezes out the capacity for the more expansive, expressive qualities such as kindness and compassion’
  • First and second wave feminism naturally wanted to distance itself from ‘women as carers’ as women had been boxed in by that for too long. And so there’s an argument that if women entering the workplace perhaps understandably stayed away from a caring role and men automatically weren’t picking up that role … then no one is claiming ‘love as care’ in the workplace.  So for different reasons, men and women both want to NOT identify themselves with care.

So if no one wants love-as-care, where does it sit in organisations?  In many places, care generally gets outsourced to functions like HR or the Wellbeing teams and, mostly these are team of women, in my experience.  Why? Because ‘human’ and ‘being’ are seen as women’s work?   Also, in many organisations I work with, these are often marginalised functions in and of themselves when it comes to shaping how organisations are run and how they feel and have little voice or strategic influence.  So I wonder what needs to happen for both men and women to grab hold of love-as-care in organisations and to legitimize that as a core part of leadership?


  1. Care (love) is performative

As I imply in the section above on caring for/caring about, there’s an element to caring that’s performative.  I used to work with a 360 tool that said ‘demonstrates a real interest in people’ which was great, as far as it went.  But what about ‘has a real interest in people’?

The danger is that expectations of care (and empathy and compassion) in leadership prompt a form of performance – what a palliative care doctor in Bunting’s research described as ‘the well practiced head tilt’. Raymond Tallis, doctor and author, points out that doctors are taught how to perform the role of a good doctor – listening, caring, empathic.  Sincerity is beside the point.  The doctor has to develop a manner of empathy, regardless of their feelings.  What’s the leadership equivalent, I wonder?

Do we think this is also true of leaders in organisations?  That leadership development programmes focusing on compassion or love or kindness are really helping leaders to create a veneer of care?   I’m thinking here, too, of those leaders who don’t especially care for people?   Who categorically think their job is to focus on business deliverables alone?   Who don’t accept as valid the view that we could or should bring more of ourselves to work?  The leaders who feel that emotion – our messy, irrational selves – don’t really have a place when there’s a job to be done.  Or leaders whose personal social history makes it very difficult to care for others.  What should we do about them?  Insist they change?  Leave them be?

Depends, maybe on whether we feel that caring and an attitude of caring is innate – you either have it or you don’t.  Or do you think it can be learned? Personally, a lot of my caring is learned behaviour.  There were several things that were a feature of my childhood  – ‘slow trauma’, you might say –  that meant the softer and gentle parts of me, the more caring and loving parts of me, didn’t really get fully developed.  I mean, they were there.  But they weren’t an especially strong part of who I was.  I grew up a little unbalanced.  But over the last 15 years, once I saw that there was a bit of gap, I started to see ways that I could grow into those areas – and I have.  And in a way that’s a lot deeper than veneer.  ‘The skill of caring is acquired through a learning journey’ and we learn (and craft a new identity) by doing it.  And there’s nothing to say that we can’t start to learn it later in life – in fact the work of Robert Kegan and the stages of adult development supports that strongly.

Bunting’s book provides many stories about people who, in caring for others developed their own capacity for care.   And in a podcast, her interviewer says that just by reading the book, he noticed a desire to be more caring.   Ram Dass, the spiritual philosopher, says ‘we open our hearts by finding someone who is suffering and helping them’.  Professor  Herminia Ibarra’s work on identity is important here too, about how we need to act/behave our way into a new identify.  And the poet Antonio Macado who says:

Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path.

And so I am thinking about how we might develop the capacity for care in each of us, in organisations, and especially in leaders and those in senior roles.  And that maybe it’s ok if it’s performative.  I don’t know if my GP really cares about me but if I leave with the feeling that he does … well, that’s something pretty powerful in itself.    


Not sure I’m making any major conclusions here.  I think I have more questions than answers.  It’s been more about me thinking out loud about some things that have been on my mind and doing that through the lens of this powerful book.  Thank you for letting me think aloud with you 😊

As ever, let me know what you think about what I’m saying.  Always good to get some thinking partners in this exploration.

Helena x

Cohort 2 of my 6 week Leading from Love programme is now open for bookings and you can find details here

We look at why love matters in organisations and what’s possible with more love; the reasons why love is almost taboo and why radical humanity is so difficult to find in so many of our workplaces; what we mean by love – and what we can do as leaders to bring more love into our leadership. 

Past participants have said … 

  • it’s a deeply thought-provoking examination of what it means to be a leader and the mission to bring more love (and thus humanity) into the way we lead and organise our teams.  
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