Leadership: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

In 2012, I spoke at the Lean HR Summit, which is one of the many excellent annual Summits delivered by Lean Frontiers. I had heard about David Veech‘s work (@DavidVeech) at Ohio State and was eager to hear him speak. So I settled into my chair, ready to hear David’s take on the interplay between Lean principles and HR practices. But that’s not what he talked about—at least not explicitly. What David talked about was love. Come again? Love? In business?

In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, one of W. Edwards Deming’s greatest contributions to business management is #8 of his 14 Points for Management: Drive out fear. And I’ve understood for quite some time now that all of our feelings and behaviors can be distilled down to two primal human emotions: love and fear. So to drive out fear, we have to replace it with love. Makes sense.

David went on to deliver one of the most compelling keynotes I’ve heard and his words deepened the quest I’ve been on to uncover the keys to consistent, outstanding business performance. One thing that’s clear is that love and fear play a critical role. Likely THE most critical role. We have to build cultures of love in order to have cultures devoid of fear.

Uncomfortable with the words love and business in the sentence? Simon Sinek’s most recent TED Talk is arguably his best yet and is laced with Lean leadership principles, even though he never mentions the word Lean. What he does mention is love as a precondition to establishing a culture of trust and cooperation, which leads to significant business results. This 12-minute talk packs a powerful punch.

Similar to a post I penned last week for Switch and Shift and I address in The Outstanding Organization, Sinek talks about the need to create the environment that enables people to perform at their best.

Sinek says it best:

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people in the organization first, to sacrifice the comforts, to sacrifice the tangible results so that the people remain feel safe and feel they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Take a look and then read on (If you’re pressed for time, I’ve listed some of Sinek’s key points at the end of this post):

In The Outstanding Organization (TOO), I talk about the establishing a work environment that fosters “reciprocal nourishment,” a term I learned from clinical sociologist Kathryn Goldman Schuyler. While writing TOO, I never even thought the word love. I do now.

In last week’s webinar about Respect for People: The Lean Way, I address the need to build work environments that draw on and are highly respectful of the full set of knowledge, skills, aptitude and creativity (KSAC) each employee brings to a job. In doing so, business performance soars. This webinar was the first time I mentioned the word “love” and “business” in the same sentence (at 6:00). It felt very right.

I believe we’re on the cusp of a major transformation in business and the way leaders lead. Command-and-control never worked and it especially doesn’t work with Millennials. One of my favorite little books released in the past two years is Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go by Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni. People are starved for feedback, learning, and development. They are not merely widgets to do a company’s bidding. When companies create environments where love and respect for humanity drives all decisions and behavior, they become unstoppable.

Spread the word. Say the word. Love. When it comes to achieving outstanding business performance, love’s got a LOT to do with it.

Here are some of my favorite Sinek-isms from his TED Talk:

“In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.”

Wow. Jarring statement, but it’s often true. Let’s change that. Another good one:

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people in the organization first, to sacrifice the comforts, to sacrifice the tangible results so that the people remain feel safe and feel they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Indeed. In environments where people don’t feel safe, trust and cooperation is non-existent and the truth about anything can become unknowable. How ’bout this pearl:

“Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank.”

Enough said.

And about layoffs, a key Lean principle. Pay particular attention to the story about Bob Chapman (8:26), a deeply-respected Lean leader who believes in “heart counts” instead of  “head counts”:

“Great leaders would never sacrifice the people to save the numbers. They would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people.”

And finally:

“If you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things. And more importantly, others have that capacity too.”

(Hat tip to Jean Cunningham for mentioning Sinek’s TED Talk in her May newsletter.)

by Gary Luke reply

Hi Karen,

Thanks for posting this blog. Came across this Simon Sinek’s video and went out and bought “Leaders eat Last” book, I highly recommend it. If you a Christian or not, there’s a quote from the New Testament where Christ says, “I am here to serve and not to be served”. This quote for me defines Leadership!!

Warm regards,

    by Karen Martin reply

    That’s a wonderful quote, Gary. Thank you for sharing it! At the end of the day, it gets down to humility (I don’t know everything) and curiosity (I want to know).

by Craig Slater reply

Powerful stuff! I could not agree more with you and Simon Sinek. Our leadership paradigm must shift.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Thanks, Craig. I discovered Simon when he wrote the book Start With Why, which I recommend highly. He has a brilliant business mind and an incredible heart.

by Steve Ghera reply

Hi Karen,
I LOVE your message here: take care of your people and they will take care of business (and your customes). It seems to fit the whole “pay if forward” message (or decision).

    by Karen Martin reply

    Thanks Steve. Studies are fairly consistent that removing fear from the workplace leads to higher performance on all fronts. Glad you enjoyed!

by Monica Diaz reply

I LOVE this!… AND the fact that more and more the word LOVE is used in business. It is truly the driving force of the world and not less so when we are working. Thanks for this thoughtful post and for sharing the TED talk!

    by Karen Martin reply

    You’re most welcome Monica! Yes, the time has come to recognize that we are emotional beings, that work is emotional, and that either love or fear is behind EVERY thought and action. Let’s choose LOVE!

by Chris Hui reply

Hi Karen,

Thanks for sharing these thoughts! After reading your post, It made me think a fair bit; I’ve always heard about mutual respect in the workplace etc. but never about love in the workplace. If we’re on the cusp of a revolution where love transforms the workplace, then it’s definitely one which can deliver enormous potential to businesses both big and small.

Kind Regards,

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hi Chris – You’re most welcome. I, too, keep noodling on what love means when it comes to leadership and business. Since love is transformational to individuals and an organization is comprised of individuals, it seems that love could indeed play an exceptionally important role in building outstanding organizations. Thank you for commenting!


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