Leadership: What's Love Got to Do With it?

What's love got to do with it? That’s a question that might make a lot of leaders cringe. Talking about “love,” particularly in the context of leadership, with its roots in war and military strategy, will make many people move on quickly to the next topic. But perhaps it is worth looking at the question more carefully. This is what Katy Granville-Chapman and Emmie Bidston will be doing at the upcoming ELO Forum on November 30th.

Dr. Katy Granville-Chapman is an associate fellow of the Oxford Character Project, a post-doctoral teaching fellow at Oxford University’s Department of Education, and a Research Associate at the Oxford University Wellbeing Research Centre. She is the co-founder of Global Social Leaders, a movement of socially conscious young leaders in 105 countries who design and lead social action projects that make a meaningful change in their communities. She is also the founder of the Wellington Leadership and Coaching Institute. Katy is a former British Army Officer and holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford which focused on leadership and flourishing.

Emmie Bidston is an Associate Fellow of the Oxford Character Project. Emmie studied Economics at the University of Cambridge before working for the UK civil service in a range of areas from education to contingency planning. She is currently Director of the Wellington Leadership and Coaching Institute. She also co-founded a charity to help develop young leaders in Africa and runs conferences, coaching, and leadership training for adults and young people.

Their approach is based on extensive experience and research, summarized in their recent book, Leader: Know, love and inspire your people (Wales, UK: Crown, 2020). They present three key lessons, as reflected in the title of the book. First, know your people. Understand their values and strengths. Second, love your people. Show them compassion, serve them, and create psychological safety. Third, inspire your people. Inspiration comes from giving them a clear sense of purpose, by empowering them and celebrating them with optimism and gratitude.

The last bit about instilling optimism is particularly challenging, given the COVID-19 cloud which has hovered since March 2020. Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging leaders—notably those in government, business, and church—to step up like never before. Senior leaders are in the spotlight, but the need for leadership does not stop with them. Granville-Chapman and Bidston encourage people everywhere, whatever their role, to step up and be a force for good at this difficult time.

In my recent communications with them, Granville-Chapman and Bidston suggested that “this is a time for our understanding of leadership to break beyond formal positions and structures to a dynamic process that enables people to act courageously for the good of others. It is a time to reimagine leaders as those at all levels of society and from all backgrounds who embrace the challenge in their own context to step up and spread love.” Could this work? 

In their book, they point out that, “The more Machiavellian, self-focused and lacking in empathy the managers were, the worse their financial returns. Managers who were significantly less empathic than the average earned 30% less over the course of a decade.” [70] A ruthless or callous approach won’t work. “What is the alternative? Love your people. Show them love, through kindness, service, gratitude, and fearlessness.” [70]

Granville-Chapman and Bidston address a range of leadership-related concepts throughout their book. They highlight the importance of “psychological safety.” This is the notion of creating an environment in which people can safely speak their minds without fear of retribution. “Knowing your people, building strong relationships, showing kindness and service all link together to create psychological safety.” [108] There are important consequences. “When we feel safe, we become more open-minded—we can discard automatic responses and look for creative solutions.” [113]

They deal with the issue of trust in leadership. “If you are a leader, you have a responsibility to create a high-trust environment with a clear direction.” [135] This ties in with the common notion that trust-based environments are generally more efficient and productive.

The leadership concepts of spreading love, psychological safety and trust can be time-intensive for leaders. Is this a worthwhile approach to invest in relationships with people? Why not just pay more? “The more you pay people to do easy mechanical tasks, the better they perform. But in situations where individuals need to solve complex tasks and use creative thinking, extrinsic motivators don’t generally work.” [139]

A leader needs to dig deeper and understand what motivates people. Granville-Chapman and Bidston discuss meaning and purpose which they define as follows: “Meaning is connecting with what you care about. Purpose is knowing that what you do matters.” [144] There is a strong correlation between feeling a sense of purpose and feeling satisfied at work. They point out that satisfaction is rooted in good relationships.

Granville-Chapman and Bidston will share more about these and other insights at the upcoming ELO Forum. Attendees will benefit in three ways. First, they will hear stories of leaders who have had a transformational impact through leading with love. Second, they will be presented with current research into the impact of leading with love from the leadership, business, educational, and psychology literature. Lastly, they will present practical tools that can be implemented straight away for creating a team and organization where love is a key value.