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Business organizations have been dominated by men for at least the last two centuries. Correspondingly, male-oriented values and behavioral characteristics — competitive aggressiveness, unemotional problem solving, rationality and logic–have been the organizational drivers. In contrast, so-called “soft skills,”–collaboration and cooperation, and compassion and empathy– have been generally perceived to be female traits and behaviors, and, viewed either as “weaknesses ” or of secondary importance.

We’ve experienced revolutionary changes in organizational behavior literature in the past three decades, which focus on the importance of emotions for employee attitudes, interpersonal relations and emotional intelligence. However, much of this research has neglected the basic emotions of compassionate love (feelings of affection, compassion, empathy, caring and kindness for others).

Defining Non-Sexual Love: Classical Definitions

Love is recognized as a universal virtue encompassing many types of relationships and varying depths of commitment. In Greek, four types of love are identified. Erosor ρως in Greek, was the term used to represent romantic love and was the name of the Greek god of sensual love and desire. A more common form of love, Philia, derived from the Greek word φιλέω or phileo, is often translated as “brotherly love” or “close friendship” and also meant virtue, loyalty, and equality in one’s attitude toward others.

In the Christian Bible and Muslim Qu’ran, brotherly love is acknowledged as the commitment of one to another that is expected of the members of the family of God and other true believers. Storge, or Στοργή in Greek, is a natural affection or kindly feeling or devotion that a person has toward someone or something close to her or to him and is acknowledged as a common natural feeling of appreciation. Agape, or γάπη or γαπάω, in Greek, is a love that includes the consuming passion for the well-being of another. Agape is not based solely on the worth of the object being loved but represents selfless and unconditional feelings possessed by one individual for another.

Love unlocks “the good, the true, and the beautiful” by seeing it in others. In Arabic, the most powerful type of love is al-cholla, which suggests the unification of the souls including the pursuit of the highest and greatest good for self and others. Such love is focused on an unconditional commitment to the welfare of others in the pursuit of an ultimate benefit.

The Hebrew word for love is Ahava or אהבה and its root word comes from the Hebrew word meaning to give—affirming the great truth that love is essentially about giving of oneself.

Modern Definitions

Throughout his book, The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck, defined love as “a commitment to the welfare, growth, and wholeness” of either oneself or another person. Many who speak and write of love have emphasized that we must first care for ourselves and recognize the goodness that we possess to fully love others. Self-valuing need not be selfish or self-serving but provides within each individual the capacity to believe that (s)he can contribute to the world, to the lives of others, and to a society that desperately needs greater love.

The following definition of compassionate love was offered by Susan Sprecher and Beverley Fehr, writing in the journal Social and Personal Relationships: “compassionate love is generally understood as orientation towards others, either close others or strangers or all of humanity; containing feelings, cognitions, and behaviors that are focused on caring, concern, tenderness, and an orientation toward supporting, helping, and understanding the other(s), particularly when the other(s) is (are) perceived to be suffering or in need. Furthermore, compassionate love is distinct from closely related concepts like empathy, as it is steadier and more comprehensive .”

Psychologist Zick Rubin conducted important research on the difference between liking and loving and is commonly credited with the first empirical measurement of love. In his book Liking and Loving: An Invitation to social Psychology, he states: “Setting out to devise measurements of love is like setting out to prepare a gourmet dish with a thousand different recipes but no pots and pans. The recipes for love abound. Throughout history poets, essayists, novelists, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, sociologists, and other men and women of goodwill have written more about love than virtually any other topic… But whereas the nature of love has been a prime topic of discourse and debate, the number of behavioral scientists that have conducted empirical research on love can be counted on one’s fingers.”

Love in Organizations and Leadership

P.J. Frost, in his article published in the Journal of Management Inquiry, argues “As organizational researchers, we tend to see organizations and their members with little other than a dispassionate eye and training that inclines us toward abstractions that don’t include consideration of the dignity and humanity of those in our lens. Our hearts, our compassion, are not engaged and we end up being outside of and missing the humanity, the ‘aliveness’ of organizational life.”

Jacoba M. Lilius and her colleagues in their chapter of The Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, conclude “organizational models that assume human nature consists only of individual self-interests have been extremely limiting and new research points to the fundamental role of empathetic concern and compassion not only in social life but in the workplace.”

Predominant dispassionate, logical behavior in organizations inevitably develops systems, HR practices and training and development methods that either isolate from or devalue compassionate love. You rarely encounter leadership training programs or employee manuals that focus on principles of tolerance, selflessness, kindness and compassionate love. Moreover, when the leader models purely transactional and dispassionate behavior, this can pervade the entire organization. Subsequently, when it’s replicated across many organizations, it sets a norm for business. Yes, dispassionate, logical ways of running organizations have met with financial success, but what has been the cost in terms of relationships, employee morale and happiness?

In an article for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Emma Seppälä, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and the author of The Happiness Track, cites the growing incidence of workplace stress among employees. She argues that a new field of research suggests when organizations promote an “ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress, they may not only see a happier workplace, but also an upward bottom line.”

Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blogs, argues that organizations must develop a “culture of compassionate coaching This means not merely focusing on coaching employees on their weaknesses and that creating a culture of unconditional love binds the team together.”

Tim Sanders, author of the bookLove Is A Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends, argues “those of us who use love as a point of differentiation in business will separate ourselves from our competitors just as world-class distance runners separate themselves.”

Sigel G. Barsade at the Wharton School of Business and Olivia A. O’Neill at the University of Pennsylvania published an article in Administration Quarterly in which they describe their longitudinal study of the culture of compassionate love in organizations. They found compassionate love positively relates to employee satisfaction and teamwork to employee absenteeism and emotional exhaustion. Barsade and O’Neill speculate that in Western culture, there is an assumption that love “stops at the office door, and that work relationships are not deep enough to be called love.” The authors contend most leadership and organizational culture literature has largely neglected emotions. They also argue that “there is no organizational theory that incorporates behavioral norms, values and deep underlying assumptions about the content of emotions themselves and their impact on employees.”

In an article published in the Journal of Business Ethics titled “Compassionate Love as a Cornerstone of Servant Leadership: An Integration of Previous Theorizing and Research,”  authors Dirk van Dierendonck and Kathleen Patterson state: “we propose that a leader’s propensity for compassionate love will encourage a virtuous attitude in terms of humility, gratitude, forgiveness and altruism. This virtuous attitude will give rise to servant leadership behavior in terms of empowerment, authenticity, stewardship and providing direction.”

The authors argue “Compassionate love is about doing good with a clear motivation of concern for the followers, acts of kindness that are intended for the follower’s benefit, not for the leader’s benefit (such as looking good). Compassionate love is proposed as an underlying motivation for servant leadership, given that it more than any other leadership theory emphasizes a concern for the needs of followers …. The combined findings of a large research initiative funded by the Pelzer institute provide empirical support for many theorized antecedents and consequences of compassionate love that are also relevant for servant leadership, such as self-esteem, a greater willingness for self-sacrifice, caregiving self-efficacy, forgiveness, empathy and altruism, among others .”

Duncan Coombe, in his article in the Harvard Business Review“Can You Really Power an Organization with Love?” argues: “If just about every person on the planet has at some point spoken about the centrality of love to wellbeing, why do we hear so little about it in the context of work? It seems we have collectively agreed that this universal ‘good’ is somehow not appropriate in the place where we spend the bulk of our waking hours.” Coombe suggests several strategies for leaders to incorporate love into their organizations:

  • ” Don’t use the word love. Rather than talking about it, take action in the form of policies and services.”
  • “Think about love as an ‘operating system.’ Coombe says we should conceptualize love in business as a philosophy, a mindset or a set of intentions that govern behavior.”
  • ” Love is not all about rainbows and butterflies. Implanting behaviors that demonstrate and value love can be difficult, but it also means being comfortable with conflict and difficult conversations.”
  • “Love gets expressed from colleagues to suppliers to the planet. We need to see the expression of love as a continuous thread throughout business and life, involving employees, customers, suppliers and the community and world in general.”

University of California basketball coach John Wooden, believed by many to be one of the best and most successful coaches in any sport believed that love and balance are the two most important elements contributing to success. Love is not “soft,  it is essential,” he says. Another sports coach, Vince Lombardi, recognized for his time with the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers, is reported to have led with love. One player acknowledged that he personally never experienced that type of love from someone other than family.

R.L Daft in his book, The Leadership Experience states that leading with fear diminishes employees’ “confidence, commitment, enthusiasm, imagination, and motivation”  while leading with love “builds trust, stimulates creativity, inspires commitment, and unleashes boundless energy”. Leaders’ fear manifests itself in “arrogance, selfishness, deception, unfairness, and disrespect for others” whereas leaders’ love manifests itself in ‘friendliness, teamwork, cooperation, listening, understanding, and serving others above oneself.”

Love is more than an emotion. It is also a state of conscious awareness and intention that shapes much behavior critically important to any organization, including compassion, commitment, reflection, intuition, inclusiveness, forgiveness, kindness and care.

Fallan Kirby Carvalho and Zubin R Mulla in their article “Power of Love (AGAPE) in Leadership: A Theoretical Model,  in the South Asian Journal of Management, argue that “Although the significance of love in leadership has been discussed in mainstream media, this concept has neither been clearly defined nor scientifically investigated in scholarly literature.”

They contend that transformational leadership has also been criticized for neglecting the values aspect of leadership and considered incomplete as it lacks “a strong, explicit, moral dimension”. Many scholars have attributed negative behaviors like manipulation and deception to transformational leaders. Distinctions have been made between pseudo-transformational leaders who are concerned about their gains at the expense of others, and authentic transformational leaders who are more concerned about others’ welfare than their own.

Focusing on the dark side of charisma, researchers R.J. House and  J.M. Howell distinguished between personalized charismatic leadership based on personal dominance, authoritarian behavior, self-interest, and follower exploitation; from socialized charismatic leadership based on egalitarian behavior, collective interests, follower development, and empowerment. History is filled with examples of leaders who have manipulated followers by using their charisma in oppressive ways. Such leaders used their power for personal gains, promoted their vision, censured opposing views, demanded unquestionable obedience, and used their followers as tools to accomplish their agendas without consideration for the followers’ personal needs.

In an article titled “Leadership Beyond Narcissism: On the Role of Compassionate Love as Individual Antecedent of Servant Leadership,” by  Tim Brouns, Kai Externbrink, Pablo Salvador Blesa Aledo published in  Administrative Sciencesthe authors state: “We found a positive association between leaders’ compassionate love and servant leadership behavior, while narcissism was negatively associated with servant leadership.”

This compassionate love for non-intimate others, e.g., subordinates of a leader, is in line with the ideology of servant leadership. The leader has to show this kind of love to followers to learn much about their personalities and individual differences, strengths, and weaknesses.  Hence, leaders who have compassionate love for their followers put followers’ talents first and attribute their own and organizational goals to a secondary role. Compassionate love was described as a practical manifestation of the core principle of servant leadership, the need to serve, concluding that this construct is foundational to exemplifying servant leadership behaviors in an organizational context.

Furthermore, Dirk van Dierendonck and Kathleen Patterson write in the Journal of Business Ethics that compassionate love stimulates moral emotions in leaders. Moral emotions are always associated with the welfare or interests of the community or another person, not with oneself. This is in line with the original idea of servant leadership and reveals genuine interest in the benefit of others.

Leadership Character and Compassionate Love

In my book, Virtuous Leadership: The Character Secrets of Great Leaders, I describe how good leadership needs to be founded on virtuous behavior and good character. One of the most important elements of virtuous leadership is compassionate love.

The Challenge Facing Us

Visionary statements and brilliantly worded goals do not lead to substantive shifts in the organizational culture. If we want deeper and more trustworthy relationships, we need to better understand what is contributing to the culture of fear. We need to look honestly at how committed our organizations are to fear-based problem-solving. We need to see our clinging to past successes when addressing current challenges.

The rise in costs associated with abusive supervision and the coronavirus pandemic is radically revolutionizing the way the world works today and is calling for rewriting the ancient rule of leadership which is to treat individuals as ends in themselves rather than means to an end.

Other scholars describe the nature of the leader-follower relationship as encompassing both caring and love. Max DePree described the leader’s obligation to employees as owing sacred obligations to others’ welfare as a servant leader. Robert Greenleaf also described the leader’s responsibilities in similar words and Moses Pava framed the leadership responsibility as a covenantal obligation. Both transformational and transformative leadership address the moral obligation of leaders to be committed to followers’ best interests—a commitment which is the very essence of genuine love. Stewardship theory, a theory of organizational governance, also emphasizes the sacred nature of a leader’s obligation in honoring others’ best interests.

In writing about humility and its relationship to love, Veryl Anderson and Cam Caldwell explained that both virtues required “a proper estimation of oneself” but also a proper estimation of the worth, value, and potential of others. By understanding our innate value and that same value in others, we make it possible to bridge the unity that exists between self and others and embrace the pursuit of the greatest possible good. To that extent, love enhances the ability to transform lives and add value to the world in partnership with others.

Stephen R. Covey, the American author, scholar, and motivational speaker is also recognized for his emphasis on the importance of love and his wisdom in the application of true principles associated with human behavior. Covey believed that love, trust, and treating people with a commitment to helping them achieve their greatest possible potential were fundamental responsibilities of leaders. In its highest form, he says “love is the sacred quality which enables individuals to willingly give of themselves to help others to achieve their highest potential and to create a better world.”

When we come to understand the great power of love, we are stunned by its capacity in changing lives. Nonetheless, many skeptics about the power of love dismiss it as “too touchy-feely,” or “too difficult to communicate” for their style. Others who have studied the leader-follower relationship argue that “encouraging the heart” is one of the critical tasks of effective leaders. A growing body of powerful evidence confirms the principle affirmed through the ages that love is, after all, the most powerful force on the earth. Applying the principle of love to the leader’s relationship with others in a work context makes logical sense and affirms the importance of love and trust as aligned leadership virtues.