Leadership is a skill that takes a lifetime to master. It changes with each environment and with each new group of people. Leadership used during a search and rescue operation or a mass casualty is much different than leadership used in an office setting or in a restaurant. Tactics change. What’s considered positive and negative changes. People’s needs change. And the leaders own maturity evolves over time. It’s never perfect. We’re never done learning. And it requires constant energy to improve and maintain.
In my lifetime, I’ve had many jobs and titles. I’m the guy who always rises into a leadership position – even when I try to avoid it (as I do more often the older I get). I’ve practiced leadership, read a library on the subject, listened to coaches and mentors, picked up a bunch of techniques and made a ton of mistakes. In the last couple of years, I’ve been writing and speaking about leadership skills and issues pretty regularly.
I’ve asked the question “What is leadership?” so many times, I can pretty much recite from memory the answers I will get every time. Here’s something I never hear, but I’ve come to believe that there is nothing more important:
Good leadership absolutely requires Love and Courage. Tactics and techniques can be taught. But when we eventually fall off the pages of whatever text books we’re reading, or we leave the shelter of a more experienced mentor, we need a renewable source for energy and inspiration. We need something to help us find our way through the darkness. To be a good leader, we must have courage and we must learn to love the people we are leading.
Love is at the center. Our hearts have to be in the game. We have to get to know people. Even if we don’t like them, on some level we must love them or we will not serve them well.
Some people consider leadership to be primarily related to command and control. I’ve heard it often: “Leadership is about getting people to do things they don’t want to do.”
I agree that there is often a relationship between leadership and command and control, and there is a component of manipulation involved in the leadership craft. But there is a big difference between the way a mother manipulates her child to get that child to eat healthy vegetables, and the way an over-ambitious titled person get’s people to do things to make them look good so they can be promoted. The former is done for love. The latter is done out of selfishness. Mom rocks. The selfish over-ambitious title-wearing person is a parasite.
For many years, I used a secret formula for deciding who I was going to work for. When I got offers, I immediately set out to find out if the person I would be working for was selfish or selfless. If I found the leader to be selfish, I wouldn’t take the job no matter what the package looked like. If the leaders were selfless, the job was on the table. This rule of thumb has never failed me. As I look back over the years before I started using it, my experience was that selfish and self-centered leaders are disasters to work for.
Leadership is about service to others. The leader shows up with whatever tool box they have and they set out to serve their people and their organization the best way they know how. In my experience, there is usually very little in the way of guidance. Maybe there’s a mission statement, a job description, a set of goals… but there is no one to tell the leader the best configuration for the team, what each person needs in order to feel successful, or how to handle the challenges that life inevitably throws at your team.
It may sound corny, but I found that if I can look into the eyes of each person on my team and genuinely find a way to love them, that the way forward becomes clear.
- We don’t do things to hurt the ones we love
- We are willing to go above and beyond for the ones we love
- We say thank you to the ones we love
- We look for the story behind the story in the ones we love
- We improve ourselves for the ones we love
- We defend the ones we love from embarrassment, undeserved criticism, and other threats
- We want and do what’s best for them, and we become better leaders
The power of Love works equally well for larger audiences as it does for immediate staff. If you’ve ever been responsible for serving a distributed group of people whom you’ve never met and probably never will – tax payers, service men and women, retirees, etc. – finding a way to love them will give you focus in your job.
I was once responsible for Defense Business Transformation in the Military Health System. There was a “figure head” SES senior to me, but the reality was that I was the guy most responsible for building the program and making it work. Our system served 9.2 million patients with just under 400,000 medical employees who were distributed all over the world. Having been a medical person, I reminded myself often of the many 3 AM talks, the after-hours parties, the medical mission at it finest moments… I loved those people – every one of them – including the ones I never met.
My kids and extended family served as surrogates for the tax payers and future generation of people we served. I thought of them when I was down, when I gave speeches, or when I had to make a difficult decision. Love gives me the passion I need to speak from the heart.
I admit that I have not been able to love everyone equally. There have been times and circumstances where I frankly haven’t had the energy or desire to love the people I worked with. My last work environment, for example, was so dysfunctional that it was all I could do to connect with a few of them. The culture dragged it’s own people down, used them, abused them, and left them unappreciated and broken. I imagined I heard a sucking sound from every cubicle. It was sad, but I didn’t have the horsepower to lift them out of their misery.
Hint #1: If you can’t find a way to love them, love something about them.
Hint #2: If an environment is like quick sand and it is sucking the life force out of you, get out of there! Go find a more healthy environment where your leadership talents can be used more effectively.
Some will point out that this idea of loving people you serve can be taken to the extreme. Point conceded. Don’t do that. But there is something uniquely divine and empowering about loving the people you serve. Try it and see what Love does for your leadership abilities.
Please share your thoughts below and click here if you’re interested in joining the discussion on the second half of this critical combination: Courage.
Dave – Have you read Radical LEAP by Steve Farber? The “L” stands for Love. Great book on leadership and, other than this blog post, I have not heard anyone other than John Maxwell use it to talk about leadership in the workplace.
Based on the presentation you provided, I think I would like this guy Steve Farber, Andy.
The kind of love I’m talking about is a compass setting love. It’s about setting your heart in the right direction and allowing it to help guide you through decision making. It’s not about ignoring the head or doing something so others love us. It’s about being gracious, giving of yourself without expectation of return, leadership as service to others, and taking action with the best in mind for the people who look to us for leadership.
More than mere noblesse oblige, it’s about making a connection with those we serve and genuinely wanting what’s best for them.
Thanks for sharing the book reference!