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Love in leadership plant

Love in leadership

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Is it time to think about leading with emotions that connect – like love – rather than those that disconnect?

Leading with love is a choice. In 2020, let’s start choosing more of it.

Is it finally time to think about leading with emotions that connect, rather than disconnect?”

In 2020 the world has held a mirror up and asked us – as individuals, communities, organisations, and society – to look into it. When we do, we don’t just see a snapshot of who we are in the here and now. We pause. We think about who we’ve been in the past too.

Over the last however many years, higher education has faced ups and downs. The ways we’ve led in this environment has been shaped by things we can’t necessarily control, like the market and government policy, but also by things that we can control, such as the way we choose to respond and the emotions that come with this. Fear, anger, hope, frustration.

In 2020 with our mirror in hand, is it finally time to think about leading with emotions that connect, rather than disconnect? Choosing to lead through love rather than fear?

Working with love

Love is still a taboo word in university leadership.”

There’s no doubt that leaders in universities are skilled at using emotions in doing their jobs. This applies as much to the directive Pro Vice-Chancellor who once advised me ‘Put the fear of God into them!’ as it does to the President of a Boston community college who ‘looks into the eyes of his students and loves every single one’.

It’s likely that many people would advise against using the Pro Vice-Chancellor’s language to describe how to motivate colleagues.

Sadly, the likelihood of professionals working in higher education running a mile to avoid using the community college President’s language is probably considerably higher. Love is still a taboo word in university leadership.

It can be awkward: many work assiduously to avoid the L-word altogether. This means missing opportunities for people to connect.

We need love wherever there are humans – that means at work too”

Brené Brown, Doubling down on love

Examples set by leaders are visible and tangible. People notice not only what you say and do – how you are makes an even deeper impact. It’s a gift to colleagues for you to be present and in the moment for them, to offer a form of unconditional love that models listening and nurturing a sense of purpose that’s at the heart of all work in universities.

Brené Brown says “We need love wherever there are humans – that means at work too…. Lovelessness in words becomes lovelessness in deeds.”

It’s your humanity that makes you encourage warmth and compassion in others, and this starts with what and how you project to those around you.

As leaders, it’s on us to be the change we want to see in others; and to work with love for all our colleagues and students.

Love and our organisations

What if love became the gold institutional standard?”

What the directive Pro Vice-Chancellor and the President of the community college in Boston had in common is that they chose to lead through emotions that stir the soul. Fear on the one hand, love on the other. And when leaders choose an emotional pitch, for better or worse, their preferred pitch can become the standard for teams, departments, even whole institutions.

Match an emotional pitch of secretive, closed, or commandeering leadership with high stakes targets and a volatile environment, and you risk creating a culture of mistrust, stagnation, and disconnect. Trust is absent because knowledge and power are only for the few. Fear keeps it this way. Disharmony rules.

But what if love became the gold institutional standard?

Love that puts people before efficiency. Compassion that encourages everyone to engage a stronger, more emotionally intelligent approach to working with each other. Where we see connection with others who are different to us. Our humanness is insisted upon.

An organisation led by love might find more energy and appetite for innovation, because there’s room to be wrong, or right. People stick with you because they can recognise the purpose in what they do, and see how their work contributes to a collective vision. Every person is encouraged to be who they are because diversity of thought and experience is embraced. Just look at companies like Patagonia, or transformations like those taken by Frank van Massenhove’s for the Belgian Federal Office of Social Affairs to see this in action.

The crux of this is that leading with love is a choice. When we choose this for ourselves, we set the pitch for others around us. If we can get this right at an institutional level, we can create a higher education system that connects across all the communities it serves.

Why love matters now

There’s never been a more crucial time to make this choice. In any state of chaos or calamity, fear rises up as something that can appear to be the only reality.

It’s up to us to counter this with love, and to use love as the fuel for trust and hope. In doing so, we nudge our institutions ever closer to becoming organisations full of emotionally intelligent people.

Read more about love in leadership

Read Brené Brown’s blog ‘Doubling down on love
Discover bell hooks’ book ‘All about love
Read a research article by Patrick Barnosky on the love ethic in community development.


By Paul Gentle and Louise Clifton

Paul and Louise, Academic Director and Director of Marketing at Invisible Grail respectively, co-authored this blog. Their aspiration is to unlock the potential for creating better, stronger connections for everyone working in higher education.

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