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Why love is leadership's best kept secret

How love helps us lead well, why it matters and 3 ways to harness it better

Louise Brown Coaching - Love in Leadership

If you're a leader of humans, you're in the business of love. 

Whether you realise it or not, human behaviour sits between two opposing forces; fear and love. The things we fear we avoid like the plague, and the things we love we are intuitively drawn toward. For leaders, who are by definition in the business of making sure everyone is pulling in the same direction, anything that affects where people want to go is paramount.

Unfortunately, humans have very outdated ways of deciding whether they need to be in a fear-state or a love-state. Back when we carried sticks and made fires to keep us warm, our lives were regularly at threat, and our bodies learned to galvanise all our available energy to protect us when we were vulnerable. Our heart rate increased, our digestion paused its processing, our attention narrowed and blocked out any stimuli that wasn’t focused on surviving an attack. On the flip-side, as individuals we formed close-knit inter-dependent groups which gave us access to a variety of skills and roles beyond our own so we could survive; we looked after one another because without the strength numbers provided we might die.

Outdated default settings

Now, things are different. For most of us, there are no wild bears on the horizon threatening to tear us apart, and we are (technically) capable of staying alive without the interdependence of our ancestors, because we no longer need a close-knit group for food and shelter. But the default settings of our ancestors still exist within us – they’re hard-wired into our genetics. Just like them, we’re on high-alert and we move away from situations that we associate with a state of fear. Maybe we hold our cards a little closer to our chest, maybe we expend valuable energy worrying about whether our colleagues are out-performing us, but in teamwork neither help us today.

Love as the antidote to fear

On the opposing side to fear and the debilitating, outdated habits our bodies carry from thousands of years ago, is love. In life love translates into connection to ourselves and connection to other humans, and in leadership it translates to the same. The deeper we connect - the deeper we love - the richer our lives are and the richer the fruits of our efforts.  

Love is disarming.

It disarms the negative, self-sabotaging habits we fall into as humans, and thereby as human leaders. It pushes past the blinkered focus on survival and opens up a broader list of options to allow us to find better solutions. It disarms conflict in teams by stripping away the fear, isolation and disconnectedness that create unhelpful patterns of thought and behaviour.

Love is real, baby

The concept of love isn’t something we come across in business vocabulary often, and yet ironically it has a role in every one of my client engagements (no pun intended). As a coach I see clients and their teams transform their patterns of thought, their dissatisfaction with how things are and their intuition of what could be better into something fruitful and meaningful. These changes all involve the practice of love, and I’m regularly in awe of how imaginative and unstoppable we are as a species when we push through our fears and focus on the possibilities we can create rather than the limits we perceive.

Sometimes I’m with clients and I actually feel the love fizz: the individual who's pushed through their fear and identifies instead with their potential; the brave contribution in a group that’s shared with vulnerability because it places the sharer out on a limb; the split seconds before they’re met with support and validation; the connectedness in a team as they leap to protect one another or try to minimise one another's discomfort. All of these acts of love, create better leadership – whether it’s individual or collective.

Consciously leading with love creates a domino effect

The most amazing thing about leading, is the unique opportunity it provides for you to choose the space you operate from, and role-model that choice for others. All humans operate in different states at different times. Sometimes we’re operating from a state of fear, sometimes we’re operating from a state of love. Many times it will be from somewhere in-between. An awareness of our fears is useful, but leading from fear inhibits our decision-making, our logic, and our ability to make connections; all of which are paramount in success.

The more you consciously lead from a place of love, the better you will lead. By holding a space that is safe, which creates conditions that allow your people to access their best thinking, you move the environment along the scale, away from a context that is outdated and irrelevant to a context that is appropriate and best suited to innovation and problem-solving. Through your behaviour as a leader, you can indirectly give your team permission to let go of their fears, so they can do the same for those they lead. The impact is huge, and it starts with you.

3 ways you can harness love in leadership

Here’s my two-pence-worth of how you can create more love in your leadership, based on my own experience of leading, and everything I’ve observed in my work with clients.

 1.   Love yourself – put on your own mask on first so others put on theirs. 

An outdated but sadly still aspired-to leadership ‘quality’, is to always be in control, always be ok and always know the answers. It comes from the ancestral need to ward off threats. (Thousands of years ago this might be the threat of being eaten by a lion. Nowadays this is more like the threat of losing your job or someone laughing at you). The problem is that it’s impossible to be ok, in control and to have all the answers all of the time, and holding yourself to that standard is inherently damaging. As a leader all you’ll do is set unrealistic expectations for yourself and your team, demotivating you both. Role model an acceptance of your limits in each moment however, and you'll foster a love for curiosity and vulnerability and set a tone that’s conducive to connection and growth. It's in this space that humans break barriers down and seemingly impossible challenges are solved.

Try this:

Accept your own needs and take them seriously, so you can find ways to meet them and your team are inspired to do the same with theirs.


2.   Love your journey – don’t let self-criticism sabotage your service.

Get to know your strengths and areas for growth and work with them in mind, but don’t view yourself negatively. Thousands of years ago a bias towards the negative helped us survive; nowadays it simply shuts down our available options and reduces our energy. In today’s world we still have a nasty habit of attaching our sense of self-worth to something outside of ourselves. This is unhelpful because many things outside of ourselves are finite, temporary and unknown. So detach your sense of self-worth from transitory unknown quantities, and trust the process. By cultivating a learning mentality about your own growth and staying curious about what you can become rather than judgemental about what you are, you stay in a positive, energised and action-ready state where you can add real value.

Try this:

Observe your inner narrative with a healthy degree of detachment when you experience discomfort, irritation or pain. Use that insight about what’s going on to help you do more of what works for you and less of what doesn’t – rather than to beat yourself up.

3.   Love your team like they’re your children. 

By this I don’t mean make them a packed lunch, more that you want your children to be able to survive without you. Part of loving another human being is respecting that they, not you, are the ultimate authority on the best way for them to get stuff done. Respect that freedom and you’ll win hearts and minds and make your own job a hell of a lot easier. Ever heard the phrase ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’? Focusing on how you, in this one specific moment, would go about getting something done even though it's not yours to do, is like giving a man a fish. It’s a limited, short term approach, which almost never gets you the best answer. If on the other hand you create space for your team to stretch their thinking or collaborate to find the best solutions, you build limitless problem-solving value: they can fish forever.

Try this:

Embrace your role as creating space for others to grow, trust that playing that role adds a huge amount of value in itself, and always remember that no matter how many times you’ve done something before, the same challenge is never the same for two different people.

How tuned in to your human are you when you're leading? Are you harnessing your superpower as a leader? Get in touch or subscribe for more inspiration, tools and support.

Louise Brown signature - Louise Brown Coaching

Photo by Nick Fewings

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