Love At The Office. It does pay off

Leadership and power go hand in hand. Think of these four words for a second: “who is in charge”, often followed by a question mark. They denote governance, responsibility, mandate, but what they do not convey immediately is how this power is executed. Leadership comes in different styles and as a business leader one can make a deliberate choice from which set of core beliefs, principles and values the organization is managed. But it is not the organizational standards we are referring to. It is you. The CEO, CFO, COO and many other C’s. The director, the manager, the boss, the one who leads.

Who you are is not in your words but in what you do

What do you value most in life? Is it status, happiness, health, meaning, or something else? The Harvard Study of Adult Development started in 1938 during the Grand Depression, and while this may appear to be somewhat out of context when connected to those years in which many struggled with the socioeconomic circumstances, scientists hoped the study would reveal clues to how to live a happy and healthy life. It is considered the longest running study on happiness. Participants were followed throughout the course of their life, starting when they were nineteen years old. This study found it were relationships that mattered most and, moreover, predicted healthy ageing. Not their profession or position in society, nor fame or the amount of money they made. As the participants were from all social classes, with a wide variety in economic, social, and family background, this research included people who became doctors and lawyers, plumbers and bricklayers, and the former President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy. Joy and happiness come from close relationships with partners, family, friends, and from community.

The implications and hence the take-away for business leaders from this study and other research on happiness and wellbeing are manyfold. Because the company or organization is a community as well, operating in the larger world, it makes sense to invest in relations and therefore in trust, and to create an environment where employees feel safe. Trust and safety are allies and together they can scale up curiosity (stepping out of the comfort zone, learning something new), creativity (looking for opportunities, daring to go beyond what is known) and, consequently, innovation. Improving employee happiness and wellbeing can be done by seeing the organization as a community, filled with a web of various relationships between the people who work there.

Trust or control – two leadership styles

Love as the guiding principle for business leaders is not a commonplace notion. Yet, leadership and love can merge into a powerful bond. Love is a layered concept with several meanings. The ancient Greek distinguished between Eros, the romantic love, Storge, the love between parents and children, Philia, friendship, and Agapè, the love for others near and far. It is the overarching love of ‘I truly care’. But how does this fit in with leadership and, more specific, how can it be put into practice? First, the human factor is the main point of reference. Who we are as a human being includes our strengths and possibilities, and our flaws and imperfections. Second, leading with love does imply a relation-based approach, established by trust. Of course, the organizational process needs checks and procedures – more trust is not synonym with less control. Third, the ‘I truly care’ principle is a call to action regarding all parties that have an interest in the company, who can affect or be affected by the business. It is about creating a balance between all stakeholders, including the ones that cannot speak for themselves: nature and our planet. Sustainable economics has a long term focus.

‘We’ instead of ‘Me’

To be an organization with a purpose and a mission is not enough. What we are talking here is more ‘hard core’, taking both those who are in charge and the organization into account, looking at the short and the long term. It is not just an attitude, or ‘arriving at more empathy’. This kind of leadership asks for character, including virtues and this only can be done through hard work, self-assessment and a clear agenda. A roadmap filled with goals, not dreams – this leadership style is far from something soft or lofty. Dreams can be helpful to fuel motivation and picture the visionary landscape but it is meeting our goals that will get us somewhere. Organizations need goals, a strategy, operations and profit to ensure continuity, and the right culture to back this up. The company has to be successful now and at the same time create the conditions to be successful in the future as well. In a time like this where the transition to a sustainable economy has to be made, the concept of stewardship is ever more important, altering the definition of success. Durable, sustainable success implies the power to withstand unexpected or destructive circumstances, there is a certain calculated stability to steer the organization through rougher times, if need be.  The aforementioned leadership style in which all stakeholders not only count but are in balanced position, has by definition a long term focus and a vision of sustainable future society. Wellbeing is not limited to the company’s front door, it expands to families (of employees), the local community, their suppliers, society. The human factor is increasingly intertwined with our planet, climate, nature, and biodiversity. Directors and managers who are intrinsically motivated to engage as stewards are keen on connecting the dots: we all are part of something bigger.

Leadership and love, it is a subject of research as well. Leadership and governance based on values are closely related subjects. In our research we distinguish four aspects and as such participants’ answers get a score on each: empathy, success, truth, and sense of community. It is a different take on corporate social responsibility, stemming from the point of view that how you do business positively can affect what you do in business and vice versa. More than a license to operate, community, society, and our planet need business to play an active role and act in such a way that we truly can work together and look after one another. For instance, the major threat of climate change and biodiversity loss (and the related security risks) need solid action and cooperation. Pointing at politics, the ‘let them take care of it’ attitude ignores the fact that all of us will lose out when some do not act now. Or, like Sir David Attenborough once said: “On an exhausted planet there will not be any jobs left as well”. It was his call to action directed at the world, politics, and the business community. Egotism and arrogance, greed and scraping the bottom for profits, Macchiavellianism, those traits and behaviors will not help to get there, obviously. The Augustinian way, with love at the core, is the opposite. Love in the boardroom is the real power of leadership without the manipulative behaviors and harsh management tactics based on distrust that are more common in power from control leadership styles.

Interested in your own leadership style and the extent to which love finds its way within the organization? Take the survey here.


Watch Robert Waldinger on the Harvard study.

Mr. dr. Marina van Driel (advisor Erasmus institute for Business Economics)

Henri Slob (PhD candidate at Erasmus School of Philosophy and Program Manager of Executive Program ‘Liefde in Bedrijf’ at Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organization)

 We Trust. We Share. We Build

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