Helena Clayton | What do we mean by love?


What do we mean by love?

12 Aug 2019, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

Last year, I started exploring love in relation to our organisations and their leadership. I want to know what might help to make our organisational cultures less damaging and more (re)generative. Less fearful, more hopeful.

I started with a piece of research, asking questions like ‘how important is love in the workplace’ and ‘what leadership behaviours demonstrate love’. In the research and in conversations I have as part of my ongoing inquiry, people often say ‘but what do you mean by love’.

I have an odd response to that and sometimes experience the question as a form of denial or distancing, a way to make it safe and manageable (and understandably – love is a provocative topic) that also can feel reductive and diluting – as well as the genuine curiosity it almost certainly is too.

Because I think we know exactly what love is. We know it when someone is loving towards us. And we fully recognise when we have not been loving towards someone.

And yet maybe we do need to find a definition that’s fitting for the workplace if only to immediately rule out any talk about romantic love and how that’s not what we mean in our organisations. So could it be … brotherly love, affection, good will, benevolence, selfless, unconditional, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, sacrifice, care, empathy, compassion, listening, altruism, generosity, acceptance …

I intentionally didn’t provide a definition in this particular piece of research, preferring to build a picture from respondents. This is what emerged:

• Care was the word used most often, by a long way.
• Listening came a close second with and the ability and willingness to put aside your own stuff to really listen and give people the gift of really being heard and ‘giving people undivided attention’. This isn’t leadership as a performance art but as genuine interest in others.
• Then empathy and compassion and the ability to see something through someone else’s eyes and experiences. Even ‘hyper empathy’, for one respondent.
• There was a cluster of words or phrases that equated to really seeing and accepting people for who they are, warts and all, no matter what. No matter what.
• And finally, setting high standards – holding ‘yourself accountable first’ and also holding high expectations of others …having the courage to hold them to that, and having the difficult conversations when necessary. This is the part of love that says no, holds boundaries and is clear, direct and challenging..

I think it’s all of those while also having a strong sense that love is also something more – something ‘other’, something mysterious, something that we can’t deconstruct in order to understand.

The writer Charles Eisenstein shares my reluctance to define things, noting our desire and tendency to reduce something, nail something down. He feels that defining usually means simplifying and simplifying often means simplifying the mystery – and we lose something in doing that especially when exploring a topic like love. Defining shears off nuance and ambiguity and when we are precise it often means exclusion. So over August, my posts will be about looking at different aspects of love – dancing around the edges of love, as Eisenstein might say – and will include: love as verb where we’re required to act and not only feel; love as radical acceptance; love as a choice and an internal act of intention; love as a sacrifice; and love as moments of biological ‘positivity resonance’. All of these are explored too in relation to organisations and leadership.

In the meantime, you can find my original research report here, plus a 5 minute video clip covering similar ground, and also follow me on Twitter using @HelenaClayton

Please do pass this on to anyone you think might be interested and I’ll be back soon with the first post.

The Charles Eisenstein words come from his online course Living in the Gift, which I started this week and which will keep me company through the rest of August.

H x

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