Servant Leaders Love People

By Amir Ghannad

Photo by chuttersnap on  Unsplash

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

The title of this post has probably already driven some people away and it may have some of you who decided to check it out wondering, “What does love got to do with leadership?” My answer is, of course, “Everything!” That may sound way too “kumbaya,” but I’m not going to apologize for it because it’s the truth. The bottom line is that if you do not love your people, you will fall short in leading them and you will most certainly not serve them to the best of your ability.

But why is it that so many so-called leaders reject this notion as touchy feely, and so many of us who deep down subscribe to it try to tone it down so we don’t look like soft and wimpy people? Why is it that so many of us have allowed ourselves to be bullied into pretending to be rough and tough in the eyes of the real wimps, who don’t have the strength and courage to embrace and express their love for the people they lead?

It might be because “love” conjures up the idea of romance or being nice or forgiving or turning the other cheek. If that is what you think when you hear the word, I’d like to challenge you to expand your definition of what real love looks like. It is true that when you truly love someone, you are likely to be kind to them and forgive them for their mistakes and so on. But love is tough too.

Soldiers who have gone through combat together love each other more than almost anyone and no one calls them soft. Love is what drives people to metaphorically (or literally) chain addicted friends or family to the radiator until the withdrawals are over, and that doesn’t sound very touchy feely to me! Love means that you want what’s best for the people you love, and as such, you will muster the courage to hold them to high standards and have hard conversations with them when their behavior is not in line with their full potential. It also means you will not hesitate to resort to disciplinary action, if that is what is best for the other person’s wellbeing, whether they like it or not. Leaders who love their people, especially, must be willing to hurt their people’s feelings for their own good, if that’s what the situation calls for.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe...He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest...a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.— Albert Einstein

Something important to note is that, as mentioned, I do not mean love in a romantic sense. Nor do I understand love as a purely emotional experience. Rather, I would invite you to contemplate the philosophical or existential meaning of the word, which shares many features with what we usually mean by compassion. As psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm understood it, love was not merely an emotion, but an interpersonal capacity involving the essential elements of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge/understanding directed toward the other person, regardless of how one felt toward them. In an existential sense, we might go even deeper and suggest that what we refer to as love or compassion is merely the emotional manifestation and interpersonal orientation that arises from the recognition of the truth of interdependence, that we are all connected, essentially interchangeable, and rely on each other to function and exist as individuals. In this sense, we could say that, the functioning of each ant in a colony, or bee in a hive, or cell in an organism, even each atom in the universe is an expression of love toward the other members of its group and the composite entity which they comprise.

So, love, understood correctly in my opinion, is a way of being and acting toward others as if each of us were one tiny part of some greater whole. Furthermore, while this way of being is sometimes accompanied by positive emotions, this is not always and not necessarily the case. I would like you to keep that in mind for the rest of this article.

The unconditional love I’m referring to here is not intended to suggest that we, as humans, are capable of expressing perfect altruism toward others. On the contrary, I believe that it is only because we are capable of stretching the boundaries of our innate tendency to act in our own interest that we can express love for those who count on us for leadership and guidance. In other words, we are able to grow in compassion and love not by getting rid of our selfishness, but by expanding our sense of who and what our “self” is to gradually encompass larger and more diverse groups of people over time. You do not need to consciously think of “loving“ or “feeling compassion” toward your people, anymore than you do when you hurt your hand and instinctively care for it. Because you ideally recognize that, like your hand, your people are part of who you are, doing what is best for them should become second nature to you.

My own experience throughout my 31 years in various corporate leadership roles has shown me that there is a strong correlation between whether or not I loved the people I was leading and the kind of results we produced and the fulfillment we experienced. When I set my intentions on loving the people who counted on me for leadership as unconditionally as humanly possible, I was able to consistently act in what I felt was in their best interest—which ended up being in the best interest of the organization because they were the people running it. But when I was focused on myself, I blamed everything and everybody for every inconvenience along the way and I wasn’t able to lead consistently, and consequently delivered subpar results.

Whether you are bought in to the idea that servant leaders love their people unconditionally or not, I’d ask you to at least consider the following fundamental attributes that I think about when I refer to love in the context of leadership. (If it makes it any easier, you can replace “love” below with “compassion”):

1. Love is a verb, not an emotion – The notion that you can only love someone if you feel the emotion to do so is a cop out. Just like you can get up and work out if you choose to do so, whether you feel like it or not, so can you act according to your love for someone even if you don’t feel like it.

2. Love is not soft – It takes courage to express your love for someone, whether that expression is in the form of nurturing and support or corrective action. The wimps who act like they are too tough to love lack the courage to handle the vulnerability that it takes to express love when it counts.

3. Love is given freely, not earned – If your expression of what you consider an act of love is merely a reciprocation of something the other person did to earn it, it is not love, it is fair compensation. Love is extended freely, without conditions.

4. Love doesn’t increase or diminish based on someone’s performance – While it is entirely appropriate to provide or withhold certain incentives based our performance, even tough love should be expressed according to the full measure of love that is expressed to the best performer. Nothing less. Remember that love involves, care, respect, responsibility and understanding, and this will be easier to achieve.

5. Love is proactive, not reactive – Love responds according to the desired outcome and experience, not as a reaction to what has happened the past. The events of the past may inform the leader on what the most effective course of action may be, but ultimately, the action must be decided on and executed in the service of the desired transformative future.

6. Love is not about the one who expresses it – A leader cannot lead or serve effectively if it is all about him/her. Selfishness combined with a limited sense of self cripples one’s ability to focus on the greater good as it keeps the leader pre-occupied with defending himself/herself and trying to look good or not look bad.

7. Love is authentic – Authenticity has to do with one’s willingness to be genuine and real at the risk of being judged by others. It doesn’t mean you have to share everything you know with everybody. Not does it give you license to impose all of your opinions on others. It means that you are honest and open in how you present yourself to others.

8. Love is considerate – Even in being authentic, love demands consideration of how to best deliver an authentic message. If you’re all about practicing courage and telling it like it is and fall short on paying attention to how to best deliver your message in a way that is most effective, you will not be a leader that others will care to follow.

9. Love is consistent – Love doesn’t take wild swings. Even in volatile situations that call for the leader to be calm and caring one minute and get into a tough conversation or act forcefully the next, people around true servant leaders sense the consistency of the leader’s love for them in every situation.

10. Love is not compartmentalized – When you love someone, you care about every aspect of their life. Maybe some parts of their life are none of your business, but that doesn’t give you license to not care should they request your help in that area. It just means you are ready to serve them in whatever capacity that is appropriate. If you find yourself only caring about how a person is doing at work, but don’t care much about how they are doing as a person, you don’t love them as a servant leader should and they will pick up on it instantly.

I hope these ideas serve you in some form or fashion to increase your intentions to love the people you lead and act according to that love. I dare say that much of what I do in my line of work is a labor of love. Yes, I get paid well for the services that I provide, but I’m convinced that it is my love for my work and my audience that pushes me to consistently post something every single week for the past three years. It is my love for my clients that causes me to not just deliver a cookie-cutter speech, but pour my heart and soul into every interaction so that they get the value they deserve. Finally, it is my love for the people I serve that gives me the courage to speak openly about love and compassion in a business world that belittles those who talk about this touchy feely stuff. As I always say, when it comes to leadership, the hard stuff is easy and the soft stuff is hard! Nowhere is that more true when it comes to the subject of love in the context of leadership.

Amir is a leadership development specialist, culture transformation catalyst, and the founder of The Ghannad Group, a consultancy that specializes in guiding leaders in creating extraordinary cultures that deliver breakthrough results and unprecedented fulfillment. A widely recognized authority in the field of organizational development and a highly sought-after keynote speaker at leadership summits in the US and abroad, Amir has long been a trusted advisor and coach to top level executives in multiple industries and locations around the world. Find out more about Amir here


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