I wish I could tell you that fresh out of business school, I was introduced to leaders who modeled exceptional leadership. On the contrary, I spent the first 20 years of my career in the dog-eat-dog global automotive business, learning from my leaders how critically important the bottom line is. Everything was measured by financial performance. If you didn’t hit the numbers, you lost your job.
I learned that I had to check my personal values and principles at the company door and prioritize financial performance over everything else. Day after day, year after year, despite the autocratic, fear-based leadership I saw modeled, my faith told me that if love was Jesus’ No. 1 commandment, there had to be a better way.
I always had an angst in my soul, for I knew there was more to leadership than just numbers. I wanted to lead with love, but I wasn’t sure it could or would work. Luckily, I was wrong.
I was recruited to serve as Chairman and CEO Herschend Family Enterprises, an entertainment and theme park company operating DollyWood, Silver Dollar City and the Harlem Globetrotters. At HFE, owners Jack and Pete Herschend had curated a culture and a set of values that were second to none. Jack and Pete showed me that love does work as a leadership principle; they modeled it every day in all that they did.
For the first time, I witnessed leadership that was truly pleasing to Jesus. The angst in my soul was finally gone, and I proudly served as Chairman and CEO for 15 years. My experience at HFE revolutionized the way I saw leadership and inspired me to write Love Works: The Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders.
Don’t get me wrong, the bottom line is essential. However, sacrificing values for profits is a flawed choice. At Herschend I learned that profits are a product of doing the right thing—over and over again. As leaders we must walk our talk and build cultures in which missions and values are alive, not just plaques on walls.
Our missions and values must be evident in all aspects of our work, from the top down. By doing so, we are ensuring our business is resilient and profitable and our employees are equipped, motivated and loyal. We do this not just because it makes good business sense but it’s also the right thing to do.
LET’S TALK ABOUT LOVE
Treating someone with love regardless of how you feel about that person is a powerful principle. This type of love is the basis for all healthy relationships; it brings out the best in ourselves and others. It can make us great spouses, great parents, great friends … and great leaders too.
All too often, however, when we read the word love, we automatically think about romantic love—the emotional kind. What I’m talking about, however, is love as a verb, not an emotion. I’m talking about actions, not feelings. I’m referring to a set of behaviors that are used to build a healthy relationship with someone regardless of how they feel.
The English language has only one word for love. However, the ancient Greeks distinguished four primary kinds of love: eros, philos, storge and agape.
Eros yielded the English word erotic, and it’s all about desire, attraction and warm, fuzzy feelings. This is the romantic love Hollywood has exploited to make billions of dollars. Clearly, there is no room in the workplace for eros!
Most of us recognize philos as the root of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. This is the word our Greek friends used to describe the love of friendship and the fellowship of being with people we enjoy. However, philos can be conditional or even selfish. If you wrong someone, philos can fade; time and distance can end it, too. Unfortunately, all of us have lost a philos friendship over one of these circumstances.
Storge, the third kind of love, is the natural affection felt between family members. This is where the term “blood is thicker than water” originates. A mother’s affection for her children compares to no other. Anyone who has lived through parenting a two-year-old tyrant or a teenager knows plenty about storge love!
Philos and storge are also insufficient types of love on which to build an organization, however. We can’t always work with our friends or family, right?
LOVE THE VERB
The fourth kind of love, agape, is unconditional. It is a decision, a matter of will. Its verb form is agapao, but for simplicity I will use agape because it’s all Greek to me! The key principle is to think of agape as a verb, not an emotion and as behaviors rather than feelings.
Agape love is the foundation for the best and noblest relationships of which humans are capable. It is deliberate and unconditional love that is the result of choices and behaviors rather than feelings and emotions.
In that regard, agape love is about the values we embrace as a way of life, and it is a determination to behave in a certain way that stems from our regard for other human beings, regardless of how we may feel about them. For leaders, modeling agape love is about behavior, not emotion.
Agape love can exist in the most hostile environments—even at work! In fact, with agape love, you can dislike someone or be frustrated with them and still treat them with love. Agape love will promote healthy relationships among employees and their leaders, allowing teams to perform at their very best, while withstanding the pressure and tension that can exist in a high-performance organization.
Those Greeks were onto something!
WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
First Corinthians is a letter written by the apostle Paul two thousand years ago. Chapter 13 of this letter is known as the “love chapter” because there Paul wrote, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (13:4-7, NIV).
The seven principles of leading with love are simply paraphrased from Paul’s letter and define the behaviors of agape love. Leading with love is being patient, kind, trusting, unselfish, truthful, forgiving and dedicated. These are principles that will transform your organization from the bottom line to the bottom of your employees’ hearts.
AGAPE LOVE WORKS
I have served in large and small organizations, public and private, and also on boards of several nonprofit and for-profit organizations. After more than 40 years of witnessing all forms of organizational structures, I am still surprised at how willingly we discuss strategy and how to increase profit, but how loath we are to discuss how to build and maintain a successful corporate culture by consistently treating all employees in a way that attracts and keeps the best talent in all levels of the organization. Can you think of a better vision to share or an asset in recruiting than to put people, values and culture first and trust that the profits will follow?
That is why I submit that we should never check love at the door. Agape love transcends every aspect of our lives at home, church, work and our personal time. You can be the same person all day, every day and never feel you need a separate set of values at work and home.
So how do we as leaders model and equip others? Here are just a few examples of how our behaviors can define our missions and values:
If you have not seen it modeled, then break the cycle today and equip your leaders to lead with love. Examine your mission and values to define the behaviors, company-wide, that will increase employee engagement, increase customer satisfaction, reduce turnover while also increasing profitability. Be the leader you’ve always wanted to be, build the culture you’ve always desired for your company, equip and empower your developing leaders.
Love is the greatest force on earth. Love is the energy of life and Jesus’ No. 1 commandment. So why would we lead any other way?
You now know a better way … go show the world that love works!
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