Motivated By Love

There is a popular misconception that one cannot learn leadership in a classroom. While I understand the larger point, namely that practicing leadership offers opportunities that traditional academic learning cannot, there is, nonetheless, much to be said for the study of leadership.

One of the most important reasons to study leadership formally is to understand the diversity of motivators that draw people to a lifetime of leadership. Some see leading as a career-enhancing move; others believe that serving in a leadership capacity offers the opportunity to pay it back or pay it forward. Still others are inspired to lead because it is the best way for them to “make a difference.” The truth is that there are at least as many motivations for leading as there are individual leaders, perhaps even more.

One motive for leadership that we rarely discuss in the classroom or anywhere, is love. Here, I refer not to the altruist or to what Robert Greenleaf called the “servant leader.” Rather I am talking about the leader who is so strongly motivated by a desire to be loved that everything else takes a back seat. To be sure, even for those with well-contained egos, leading others can be a heady experience. Beyond compensation, the so-called perks of leadership can be alluring. But to a leader whose need for love is overriding the results can be addictive and destructive.

This matter is complicated and nuanced. On the one hand, a leader in search of constant esteem can be extremely effective. A desire for unbridled approbation often results in a drive for success that is enormously potent. Individuals of this ilk are ambitious and seek meticulously to avoid mistakes. Such a leader will often manifest excellent people skills, always reaching out to others, saying the right things, being supportive – all as a necessary precondition for approval. Similarly, she can serve as a great advocate for the company, embodying the best of warmth, personality, engagement and good humor.

On the other hand, when a leader is motivated solely or even largely by a desire for the approval of others, he is unable to make the tough decisions that need to be made and she is reticent to risk hurting someone’s feelings by calling out unacceptable behavior. Such leaders make bad deals and frequently find themselves negotiating from a highly compromised position. When the pursuit of the love of others becomes more important than the pursuit of the best interests of the organization the term leader ceases to apply.

I am not advocating for the creation of a preternatural class of humble men and women who eschew prominence and are immune to the intoxications of leadership. Rather, the goal is to protect both the leader and the enterprise from the excesses that come when a desire to be loved trumps all other considerations. There are, I would suggest, a few concrete things to be considered if you are such a leader or if you work with an individual who fits this description.

  1. Acquire an executive coach – someone who can hold up a mirror and help shine a bright light on behaviors that, while motivated by a need for love, often put the health of the organization at risk.
  2. Create a system of feedback, even anonymously, that allows for the sharing of specific instances in which an overarching desire to be loved impedes effective decision-making. Sometimes data can help a leader see what she cannot recognize on her own.
  3. Use case studies and role-play to make explicit the connection between a leader’s uncontained need for validation and the deleterious impact such a need has upon the organization. It is often easier to detect negative behavior in others than in our own selves.

Many would insist that a leader with an insatiable appetite for love is incapable of change; “that’s just the way he is.” That need not be the case, however. Leadership can be taught, and those who lead can be coached to greatness. Ironically, in dealing with the matter at hand, the same need for unadulterated love can be instrumental in helping to turn things around. Indeed, the very burning desire for approval can, when managed deftly, help a leader alter his behavior. Driven by that desire she can come to understand that the best way to be loved is to act like a leader – to take risks, to make necessary, though occasionally unpopular decisions, and to behave boldly without subservience to the caprice of others.

I’d love to know what your experiences have been in these matters. Let’s talk.

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