by Megan McDonough

Love is not a word commonly connected with leadership. It’s not a term used to describe any job really, except for maybe Mother Teresa’s service, Leo Buscalia’s writing, or Barbara Fredrickson’s research. I’m a fan of the word “love” and a bigger fan of living it — even, or perhaps especially, in the context of leading.

Loving Leadership has two meanings wrapped in one phrase. The first meaning is that you love the work of leadership. Leading is an act of using your highest strength for the greatest good. It is what you were meant to do. The second meaning is that you lead with love — it describes the feeling of connecting, serving, and yes, loving others. It is giving full attention to another –really looking at them, hearing their words, and connecting to them. In other words, loving leadership means you know the relationship matters. Or, more precisely, that both you and the other person matter.

These two meanings are not separate. Rather, they create a virtuous cycle. If you are feeding yourself as a leader and at the same time seeing the contribution and connection of others, that nourishment comes back full circle. The prevailing mental model of a leader is of the hard-hitting, sixteen-hour-a-day, workaholic who trades a life for a job. But if we approach leadership with a sense of curiosity, questioning, and sincere exploration of self and others, wonder grows, and so does love. As Alice Walker wrote in The Color Purple, “The more I wonder, the more I love.”

Without a doubt, leadership has watershed moments of shouldering heavy responsibilities that only the leader can and should bear. But this is the exception, not the rule. Look closely and you’ll see you are not in it alone — others are rooting for or actively supporting you. In loving leadership, you are aware of the support, so the act of leading fills you up. It inspires and energizes, not drains or pains.

Love is the endgame, but I suppose there are those that see it as a “soft skill” and want the “hard numbers” that link love to the bottom line. In crass terms, what’s the return on investment for love? I know, it’s sad but true for some — love is not enough. John Lennon was obviously not a capitalist when he proposed that love is all we need.

Love does not negate performance or productivity. In fact, Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile’s research showed that progress is the most important motivator for employees, and the best leaders foster an emotionally nourishing relationship in which that progress can be made.

A simple way to build a nourishing environment is to say thank you in writing, acknowledging that a person’s effort has made headway towards a goal. When we highlight progress by taking the time to write it down, the recipient knows they matter. They are not toiling away in sweatshop invisibility — they know that what they do has meaning and purpose. Give it a try today — here’s a card to make it easy. Just print, fold, and personalize. Start with writing a letter to yourself as leader. Imagine a big fan of yours, the universe, your spouse, the divine, or some other positive person or force acknowledging your efforts, and start writing so you can hear the difference you are making. You matter.

In her book The Progress Principle, Amabile writes:

As humans, we want others to respect, recognize, care for, and enjoy us. When they do, we revel in the positive emotions of joy, pride, and even love. And we are motivated to contribute to something wonderful. Over time, these inner work life reactions fuel superior performance. In other words, nourishers indirectly influence work progress, by influencing all three components of inner work life.


Loving leadership has one intention: to elevate and fill yourself and others. The result is an environment that fosters creativity, spurs motivation, and encourages innovative action because it’s safe to be human and make some mistakes along the way. By enriching ourselves and others in a nourishing environment, we are freed up to give the best we have individually to a collaborative vision.

In this way, work can then be a place of living the noble and lofty value of love. Really.

—This post was originally published in The Huffington Post.

MeganMegan McDonough is CEO of Wholebeing Institute, an educational organization co-founded with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. WBI is committed to spreading ideas and practices that can help individuals and groups live life to its fullest.
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