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What’s love got to do with… leadership?

Years ago, I applied for a job with a business trade association called Business for Social Responsibility.  The organization was just getting started in San Francisco.  If hired, I would have been the third employee.  When I interviewed with the CEO, I had one of those moments that I’ll always remember.  After some light conversation, the CEO asked me in a more serious way:  “So Doug, what do you care about most in life?”  It was not a question for which I had prepared, and suddenly it seemed like time stood still.  Surprisingly, I instantly knew the answer, and just as quickly, I knew it was not the answer he was looking for.  Feeling encouraged, and perhaps a bit reckless, by the swiftness of my comprehension in the moment, I responded with what I imagined to be a four-letter word in business.  “Love,” I said simply.  I can still see the look on his face, of discomfort, concern and, perhaps, a little wonder.  Though I wasn’t his first choice for the job, I was hired when the other candidate passed on the offer.  Months later, when I knew him better, I asked him about our interview.  He smiled and confessed, “It made me nervous.”  He was building an organization to bring social responsibility into the mainstream of business, so
“professional” language was naturally important to him.

This idea of love as a four-letter word seems especially striking today, when we face enormous unrest, polarization and conflict. There are those who came before us who provide a good model for how to think about leadership under such dire conditions.  George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Diamond, Missouri during the civil war.  Against enormous odds, he received his MA in 1896 and gained renown as a botanist, scientist, chemist and inventor.  He was famous for creating 100 products made out of peanuts, as he sought to help poor farmers coming out of slavery find a sustainable alternative crop to cotton.  What stands out for me was his approach to his work and life.  People would bring him their difficulties with plants and crops, which he would cure and help flourish in a ways that amazed his community.  When asked about how he did this, his response was:

Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough.  Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also – if you love them enough.  George Washington Carver

How is it that a man who was kidnapped as an infant—sold in Kentucky and returned not to his parents, but the people who owned his parents—could bring such a loving and respectful response to life?  Another quote, for which he is famous, drives this point home beautifully:

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong.  Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.  George Washington Carver

How do we lose sight of the role of love in our most important endeavors?  How did love become a four-letter word?  Sufi Mystic Rumi, writing in the 13th century, reminds us that our “task is to find all the barriers… we have built against love.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained, “certainly, there is no word in the English language more familiar than the word ‘love.’  And yet in spite of our familiarity with the word, it is one of the most misunderstood words.”  We cannot let the complexity of the concept distract us from the fundamental nature and importance of the message.  Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky (2002), writing about adaptive leadership, reinforce this idea:  “The compass heading that orients people most directly… is loving and being loved.”

In reflecting on lessons learned from the first 15 years of the Saint Mary’s MA in Leadership, in last week’s blog, Ken Otter asked:

  • What kind of leadership is needed to skillfully navigate the turbulent and uncertain waters of today’s world?
  • How do we ensure that we leave no one behind as we move into our future?
  • How do we awaken, nurture, and bring forth all of our unique gifts and contributions?
  • How do we create the conditions that enable us to work together so we can not just survive but thrive?

The life of George Washington Carver is a remarkable example of leadership during extraordinarily difficult times.  I believe he might have answered Ken’s questions with a four-letter word and reminder, that we can be successful, “if we love them enough.”  These days, it also seems more important than ever to recall the wisdom of Dr. King (1963), from the book he had in his briefcase the day he was assassinated:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” (Strength to Love, 1963).  Building on the example of our elders, and adding to Ken’s questions above, we ask, “How can we ‘love enough’ in our practice of leadership?”

Photo Credit:  Heart Quilt by Amy Andrews

About Doug Paxton, Ph.D.

Doug Paxton, Ph.D.
Doug Paxton is a learner, educator, writer, and artist who is passionate about what humanity has to learn from reconnecting to our values and the natural world. Doug is Co-Director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary’s College and faculty in the MA in Leadership program, currently focusing his teaching in the area of Values in Action, Leadership and Sustainable Organizational Change.

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