The business of leadership requires love

The success of your business and the success of your people are inextricably linked. One cannot succeed without the other.

How do you start writing an article about leadership and love? In the view of many, they are almost antithetical. And yet here I sit attempting to explain that if you don’t love your people, you probably shouldn’t be in the business of leadership.

Many will scoff at the notion. And I probably would’ve scoffed at it once upon a time. I would’ve said something like, “Leadership isn’t about love. Leadership is about results.” And there are a thousand books on the subject that might tell you something similar. But I am here to tell you that results are the outcome of love.

Coach Wooden, the winningest coach in college basketball history, said, “The job of the coach is to love the boys.” Or to paraphrase in modern phraseology, “The job of the leader is to love the people.” But why would he not say, “The job of the coach is to win”? He didn’t say that because he knew that if he loved the boys, they would win. That if he loved them enough to care about them, to properly train them, to provide for them a wholesome discipline, to tell them the truth, then they would commit to winning. And because of that commitment to winning, they would succeed. When a person loves someone, they wish for them to succeed. They wish for them to be happy and fulfilled. They wish for them to rise far above themselves. If a leader loves their people, that leader will do everything in their power to help them be more than they ever thought they could be. That is the proper role of the leader.

Do you think that if everyone in your organization was fully committed to accomplishing your goals and fully engaged in thinking up new ideas, identifying problems, finding solutions, and innovating new products and services, you would be a successful company? Of course you would. People solve problems, run the business and execute the mission. The leader cannot do these things alone. And people cannot succeed unless they commit to success. And how might one get people to commit to success? By engaging with them. By developing a relationship with them. This is how human beings work. We build relationships and commitments to one another. And we respond most effectively to those we care about and to those who care about us. Disdain your people and they will abandon you. Love your people and they will follow you.

The most natural thing in the world is for human beings to connect and build relationships. Our entire species is wired for social interaction and for the development of friendships and affections. In fact, this is the primary basis for the success of our species. From a Darwinian perspective, humans evolved to be successful through the establishment of relationships and it is one of our primary competitive advantages. It is the establishment of these relationships that allows humans to collaborate and cooperate, build functioning societies, accomplish mutually beneficial goals, form families and raise children, and run organizations. The loyalty, trust, care and affection that relationships provide, in a literal sense, allow us to flourish. Without them, the human species perishes.

In every facet of human endeavor, relationships form the basis of our ability to flourish: from the time you were raised by a parent or parents, through your relationships with teachers, religious leaders and friends, and finally to your relationships with your spouse, significant other and leaders as you navigate adulthood. In this light, it is preposterous to conceive of a workplace and a leadership role devoid of significant and meaningful relationships. And yet, we are often taught to avoid personal relationships at work, most especially with those we lead.

I argue that this perspective is cowardly. It is an abdication of the rightful role of the leader. Relationships are the stock in trade of leadership in the same way a carpenter uses a hammer. To imagine that you can effectively and sustainably lead people without truly caring for them is foolish. You may be able to direct people to accomplish tasks, but you will not be able to sustainably and effectively leverage their innovation and engagement to accomplish the goals of the organization.

However, this is scary. The reason leaders will give for not wanting to build reciprocal relationships is that a true relationship with their people will not allow them to be objective. That it would make it difficult for them to hold people accountable. But that is not the real reason. To build relationships with people is to also bear a responsibility to them. This is the primary reason many leaders remain detached from their people: fear. Fear that they might be forced to deal with the heartbreaks, troubles and sorrows that plague every one of us. Fear that they will have to put forth the necessary and moral effort that a relationship requires. Fear that the duty leaders have to their people will be too much for them to shoulder.

And why should they not be frightened of the prospect? It is annoying to have to deal with people and all of their foibles and problems. Your job is to produce, not to be a babysitter, you may think. How can you produce when you have to take time to deal with people about whom you actually care? How can you drive accountability when you truly see that these people and their families are counting on you? Indeed, they are counting on you to have a sense of compassion and forbearance as they claw their way through the struggles of life. This is the duty leaders have to the people they lead. And it is the fulfillment of our duty to our people, certainly not the fulfillment of our duty to a set of numbers, that truly makes us into great leaders. The fulfillment of this duty encourages the loyalties of those we lead.

The goals of the organization and the goals of the people are inseparable. Success is the marriage of those goals. It isn’t useful to have people whose goals are in tension or contrary to the goals of the organization. It is the job of the leader to understand the goals and aspirations of their people and to align them with the goals and aspirations of the business. Without truly understanding your people and what they need, what motivates them, what struggles they have, and what talents they possess, you cannot hope to position them to be successful. And if they are successful? Then you and your organization will also be so. If they are not successful, you won’t be either. And so it follows that to deny meaningful relationships with your people is to fundamentally deny the fullest success of the organization.

In the end, the true burden and joy of leadership is the fulfillment of duty. For it is in the fulfillment of our duty to our people that we not only find organizational success, but also, perhaps most important, we find ourselves. We are all granted unique talents, and our personal and moral success lies in leveraging those talents to improve the world. As a leader, you are uniquely positioned to improve the lives of those with whom you work, even as you successfully achieve business milestones. Maybe especially as you achieve business milestones. The success of your business and the success of your people are inextricably linked. One cannot succeed without the other.