It took me a few years of consideration to form my convictions about leadership and love, then a few more to dare to share them in the classroom. I feared this: if I say to students that the essence of leadership is all about love, which is wrought relentlessly by convention and recklessly by popular culture, they might just can the whole proposition.
Erich Fromm, whom I hadn’t read in decades, and certainly not since I started teaching MBA’s, helped me out. On a trans-Pacific flight I took in The Art of Loving, tears welling. There it was, all I’d been too craven to posit publicly.
I read: “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.” And I thought, like leadership. Love and leadership share many features. Both are ancient human fascinations, both cradles of dreams. Neither is ever deemed a finished “product,” or the happy result of duly followed steps in a how-to guide. They are continuous endeavors; arts in which one actively may seek mastery.
Good love and good leadership involve attention, concern, and concentration. Neither is a “skill” or “best practice”, in the sense of repeated or emulated behaviour, nor are they “treatments”—something one person does to another. Rather, they demand a range of capacities (empathy, authenticity, respect, gratitude, resolve, empowerment, and more) to be integrated through considered action. I am invoking ideal forms of love and leadership here, but I’d say the two rhyme in negative forms too. Lacking the said capacities, bad love isn’t so different from bad leadership.
Look what we’ve done to our song
Writing in the mid-1950s, Fromm lamented what “capitalist materialist society” has made of love—one of humankind’s most vital faculties.
In capitalism, Fromm argues, market-based exchange is the mode of interaction we know and understand best. In such a society, we’ve come to assume that love too bears a contractual expectation of “fairness” as in “if I give something, I want something back.” Fromm calls this situation “the basic incompatibility between love and normal secular life within our society.” We contemporary humans cannot love without return on investment, because if we did, we would not be able to secure our own livelihoods. In relationships of all kinds, we may wonder: deep down, am I willing and able to love rightly, free of expectations?
“Good love and good leadership involve attention, concern, and concentration… they demand a range of capacities to be integrated through considered action.”
Whether or not we agree with Fromm, I see a parallel to what leadership has become for too many. The most primitive form of leadership is transactional (if you do what I want, I will reward you) which we observe everywhere. Especially in middle management where KPIs and targets reign, the default “leadership” relationship isn’t one of attachment, but one of incentive—and in our market-run social context, that makes total sense. Developing leaders—especially in business—struggle valiantly to reconcile profit imperatives with the global leadership canon urging empathic connection. Any student of leadership sees the disconnect.
While transactional approaches to loving and leading may satisfy some, I don’t believe either good love or good leadership works this way. Authentic giving is about experiencing joy without entailing sacrifice from anyone. We know that “giving is more joyous than receiving” but, as Fromm adds wisely: “not because it is deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”
A heightened sense of alertness, of aliveness, of being awake— this is how we should experience both love and leadership. Both should kindle, not drain, our energies, so much that they spread, regenerate. A loving person promotes love in others ( parenting is an example of this). A leading person promotes leadership in others, as happens between a teacher and student. To love and lead well you will need to transcend the market exchange, embracing that these activities lie outside the orbit of fair return.
“In relationships of all kinds, we may wonder: deep down, am I willing and able to love rightly, free of expectations?”
At its best, leadership is an act of love. As in, I have enough regard for you to lead you, to concentrate my attention on you, and to help you see all that you can do.
Many of my students tell me that they’ve never experienced good leadership, and that if you’ve never experienced it, either as the leader or as the led, it’s hard to believe it exists. This rings true for love too: “There are many people who have never seen a loving person, or a person with integrity, courage, or concentration,” writes Fromm.
I teach transcendence as requisite for good leadership; so it is too for love. Fromm writes:
- Love is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole.
- There is no “division of labor” between love for one’s own and love for strangers.
- If I can say to somebody else, “I love you,” I must be able to say, I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself.
Try this: Read the above again, and for the word “love,” substitute the words “lead” or “leadership.”
If you want to develop leadership that is consistent and sustainable, you must ground firmly in convictions about the world and about people. If those convictions are decidedly loving, you equip yourself to embrace the potentialities of all people with the magnanimity inherent in transcendent love. You will love to lead.
My MBA students think this unrealistic. And, of course it is unrealistic, and silly, to feign universal affection. Love has to be intentional and authentic. It will be imperfect, sometimes impatient or irritable. Leading from love doesn’t mean being unfailingly polite or forever smiling patiently at poor performance. We’re all people, no more and no less.
“Aspiring leaders are always being told to ‘see the big picture.’ What bigger picture is there than humankind’s struggle to master its own fate?”
I feel a duty to say to students: You don’t have to like everyone you lead, but you do have to love them. It’s my role to promote, consistently, a loving orientation. Leadership development is non-linear and takes time. Years after graduation, former students message me saying that while they didn’t quite “get it” sitting in my classroom, they do later on, usually via a personal or professional crucible. While I cannot show causality, I want to increase the likelihood that a loving orientation to leadership will lie readily in wait of discovery.
Practicing good leadership, over time, requires difficult introspective and relational work aimed straight at cultivating a loving orientation, one that pays attention to what’s in people’s hearts and on their minds, that transcends our own realities to perceive the realities of other people. All of this makes empathy possible; as I mentioned in Part 1, empathy has to come from somewhere.
Open with worldview, wrap with love
Here we come full circle to worldview. Fromm defines a selfish person as viewing the world from the standpoint of what they can get out of it and lacking interest in the needs, dignity and integrity of other people. Interestingly for aspiring leaders, he defines selfishness as a lack of objectivity. No one can achieve true objectivity, but developing as a leader takes striving for objectivity—and in the process, building as much awareness of your own worldview as you can, because it will help you meet what’s around you with curiosity and humility.
“At its best, leadership is an act of love. As in, I have enough regard for you to lead you, to concentrate my attention on you, and to help you see all that you can do.”
The market exchange mindset is well ensconced within us. The job of leaders now is to make it make good. Fromm admits that our system allows for considerable “personal latitude,” for agency: “If man is to be able to love, he must be put in his supreme place. The economic machine must serve him, rather than he serve it.”
Aspiring leaders are always being told to “see the big picture.” What bigger picture is there than humankind’s struggle to master its own fate?
I open my leadership development classes with the concept of worldview and its significance for leadership. And I end them, undaunted, with an appeal for leadership anchored in love for our species and faith in the potentialities of each individual.
To close this three-part series, I’ve gone old-school. Available to you are many high-quality perception checks, competency analyses, personality tests, case studies, and bias assessments, and these are helpful. Yet for developing leadership intentionally, I haven’t found a more powerful exercise than fearless contemplation of the human condition.
Jody Ono is a faculty member at Hitotsubashi University Business School in Tokyo where she teaches leadership development to MBA students from some 20+ countries and in executive education programs for Japanese and global companies.
Japan’s unique business worldview
The Purpose of Capitalism: Insights from Japan documentary takes an inside look at some of the largest and oldest Japanese companies to find the answer. It premieres on CNBC in October.
To read more about the film and be the first to receive insights and updates, click here.