Love: The Heart of Leadership

The Moral Obligation of Leaders

One of the persistent myths of the employer-employee or leader-follower relationship is “Leaders should maintain an arms-length relationship with those with whom they work.”[1] This perspective about human relationships has long-established roots in management theory and inferred that leaders and followers engaged in a transactional interaction.[2] In the early 20th century, the assumption of many employers was that the responsibility of management was to pursue optimum efficiency.[3] Employees were viewed as a means of production and reducing the cost of employee labor was simply part of the equation of many companies in the quest to maximize profits.[4] In order to create a “lean and mean” ability to compete, it was necessary to view labor as a resource and profit center and to reduce associated costs wherever possible.

Economic experts like Milton Friedman have advocated the assumption that profit generation was a moral obligation of every business leader. Friedman, and others like him, argued that the measuring stick for an ethical decision was simply, “Is this action in conformance with the law?”[5] Social issues were not the responsibility of organizations. Employees and other resources were a means to achieve the highest possible profits.

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In contrast with this commonly-held business assumption, others who study organizations adopt a highly humanistic set of ideas about the leader’s role and her/his relationships with employees.[6] Within this much more relationship-based group are scholars who suggest that the leader-follower association is actually highly personal and that the wisest leaders will create relationships based upon a leader’s genuine love for others.[7] Consistent with insights offered by other scholars, we clarify the nature of love as the heart of leadership and explain herein how the demonstration of that love can enable leaders and organizations to achieve greater long-term wealth and add value to the world. We begin by defining the nuances of love as an interpersonal quality. Associated with that definition, we explain the practical value of love as it affects a leader’s association with her/his colleagues within a work context.

Understanding the Nature of Love

In their award-winning book,The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner observe that love is ultimately the secret of leadership.[8] Although love is defined in multiple ways, Kouzes and Posner explain that great leaders demonstrate to others that they genuinely care about others’ welfare by their actions, rather than simply by their words. They emphasize that leadership has a powerful effect on people’s lives when others believe that their leader personally cares about them and is invested in their lives.[9]

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Love is recognized as a universal virtue encompassing many types of relationships and varying depths of commitment. In the Greek, four types of love are identified. Eros, orἔρως in Greek, was the term used to represent romantic love and was actually the name of the Greek god of sensual love and desire.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] Storge, or Στοργή in Greek, is the 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.[13] Agape, or Ἀγάπη or Ἀγαπάω, in the Greek is a love that includes the consuming passion for the well-being of another.[14] 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.[15]

Love unlocks “the good, the true, and the beautiful” by seeing it in others.[16] In the Arabic, the most powerful type of love is al-kholla, which suggests the unification of the souls including the pursuit of the highest and greatest good for self and others.[17] Such love is focused on an unconditional commitment to the welfare of others in the pursuit of an ultimate benefit.[18] 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.[19]

It is by sharing and giving of ourselves that we create a binding relationship with others. In the Jewish tradition the Rabbis tell the following story.

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A young boy once asked his Rabbi why man was created with two eyes. The Rabbi responded, “With the left eye you should look at yourself, and see where you need to improve yourself. And with the right eye, you should look at others lovingly, always seeking out their best qualities.[20]

Love encompasses both of those qualities. Love seeks to improve oneself so that a person can prepare herself/himself to serve others better. In addition, love always seek out the best in people and is committed to helping others to achieve their highest potential.[21]

Love as a Commitment

Scholars about both love and leadership offer powerful insights that run parallel with these 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.[22] Many who speak and write of love have emphasized that we must first care for ourselves and recognize the goodness which we possess in order to fully love others.[23] 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.[24]

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.[25] Robert Greenleaf also described the leader’s responsibilities in similar words[26] and Moses Pava framed the leadership responsibility as a covenantal obligation.[27] Both transformational[28] and transformative[29] leadership address the moral obligation of leaders to be totally 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.[30]

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In writing about humility and its relationship to love, Anderson and Caldwell explained that both virtues required “a proper estimation of oneself” but also a proper estimation of the worth, value, and potential of others.[31] By understanding our own 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.[32] To that extent, love enhances the ability to transform lives and add value to the world in partnership with others.[33]

The Gift of Love

Love acknowledges that relationships with others are incredibly important and that creating connection at the personal level is how we can best reach others, demonstrate to them that we are authentic and real, and inspire them to want to find the best within themselves…which is what the journey in life is ultimately all about.[34] Love empowers within each individual a profound inner peace.[35] Loving others allows us to discover that there is no greater gift that we can give to ourselves but also no better way to treat others.[36]

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The story of Aaron Feuerstein is a record of one man who demonstrated great love to others and the willingness to work for their benefit and welfare. Feuerstein owned Malden Mills, the principle employer of Lawrence, Massachusetts, with 2,300 employees. On December 11, 1995, the Malden Mills burned to the ground, taking with it the capacity of its entire workforce to provide for their families.[37]

It is sometimes through the lives of great men and women that we fully comprehend the nature of love and its capacity to serve others. Feuerstein is such a man. Rather than cashing in his $300 million insurance settlement from the fire or rebuilding his plant outside of the U.S. where labor was far cheaper, Feuerstein not only made the commitment to rebuild his entire plant in Lawrence, but continued to pay his employees $25 million in salaries—despite the fact that those employees no longer had jobs to perform.[38]

Today, more than 30 years later, that same plant now provides jobs for Lawrence, Massachusetts, residents. Feuerstein demonstrated by his actions his deep commitment to the Malden Mills employees who had been loyal to him and to his family—despite the great risk that he was willing to take on their behalf in rebuilding the Malden Mills plant. That commitment to others earned Feuerstein the respect and admiration of those with whom he worked and Feuerstein’s dedication to others’ best interests typifies great love in action.

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Love Generates Trust

Other leaders and organizations have also acted with a commitment to others welfare and a desire to serve their best interests. For example, NUCOR Steel is famous for its partnership relationship with its employees and its profit sharing and team decision-making have made its employees among the highest paid in the steel industry and enabled NUCOR Steel to thrive financially.[39] Many other companies have adopted High Performance Work Systems that treat employees as valued partners and High Performance Work Systems have consistently been found to be more profitable than peer competitors who do not treat employees with care and consideration. The evidence suggests that love’s capacity to bring out the best in individuals is exemplified by leaders who demonstrate that service could supersede self-interests by acts of love.[40] Such caring and kindness generates high trust and individual commitment that creates wealth and adds value to organizations, to employees, and to society.[41]

Stephen R. Covey, the American author, scholar, and motivational speaker is also recognized for his emphasis on the importance of love and for 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.[42] Incorporating insights from the multiple definitions of love and from these examples, we suggest a definition of what we think may encompass the highest form of love. In its highest form, 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.

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Power of Love

The practical application of leading with love is in recognizing that others are valued “Yous” rather than commodities, or “Its.”[43] The power of the human connection and of caring personally about others is often overlooked as the important element of successful human relations.[44] In a world workforce where only 13 percent of employees consider themselves to be not engaged or committed to their job,[45] where employees frequently distrust their leaders,[46] and where 71 percent of employees are actively looking for new jobs,[47] the importance of creating better relationships between leaders and followers seems easy to understand.

When we come to understand the great power of love, we are stunned by its capacity in changing lives.[48] Nonetheless, many skeptics about the power of love dismiss it as “too touchy-feely,” or “too difficult to communicate” for their personal style. Others who have studied the leader-follower relationship argue that “encouraging the heart” is one of the critical tasks of effective leaders.[49] 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.[50] 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.[51]


Whatever might be a person’s next leadership role, whether it involve creating a mission statement, defining a company vision or strategic plan, or simply the process of making any organizational improvement, the need to build on the powerful force of love can enhance the effectiveness of that organization. Love of the process, love of the journey, love of life, and love of people…the answers to any leadership purpose undoubtedly can be addressed when love is applied and understood while working to achieve a worthy purpose.

Authored By Verl Anderson, PhDCam Caldwell, PhD and Blair Barfuss, MHR

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[1] In the highly competitive global marketplace, this arms-length approach has been advocated for decades. An alternative perspective has been suggested by Caldwell, C., Atwijuka, S., & Okpala, C. O. (2018). “Compassionate Leadership in an Arms-Length World.” Journal of Business and Management.

[2] This point is made in Wren, D. A. (2004). The History of Management Thought. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

[3] See, for example, Emerson, H. (1911). “Efficiency as a Basis for Operations and Wages.” Engineering Magazine.

[4] The importance of the pursuit of efficiency and the employees’ role in that process is documented in Arnold, W. J. (1963). “Famous Firsts: High Priests of Efficiency.” Business Week, June 22, 1963, pp. 100-104.

[5] Milton Friedman’s famous article is Friedman, M. (1970). “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits. ”New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970.

[6] This more ethically-based and humanistic position is the perspective of many scholars. See, for example, Solomon, R. C. (1993). Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and Integrity in Business. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[7] The importance of building relationships at the personal level is articulated clearly by Boyatzis, R. E. & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[8] Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The Leadership Challenge: How to Get Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations (6th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[9] Ibid.

[10] These four Greek references are found in Oxford University Press (2008). The Oxford New Greek Dictionary: The Essential Resource Revised and Updated. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Holy Bible is filled with references to the importance of loving one another. See, for example, John 13:35. Muslim references to brotherly love are also extensive and emphasize the importance of the divine principle of brotherly love. See, for example, Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2390.

[13] Oxford University Press (2008), op. cit.

[14] Zavada, J. (2018). “What is Agape Love in the Bible?” ThoughtCo. July 31, 2018 found online on January 21, 2019 at

[15] Oxford University Press (2008), op. cit.

[16] Boylan, M. (2008). The Good, the True, and the Beautiful: A Quest for Meaning. New York: International Publishing Group.

[17] Oxford University Press (2010). Oxford Essential Arabic Dictionary. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Doniach, N., & Kahane, A. (Eds). (1996). The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[20] This beautiful vignette is found at “Love and the Hebrew Language” The Messianic Jewish Bible Society. (n.d.) found online on January 21, 2019 at

[21] This insight is found in Anderson, V. & Caldwell, C. (2019). “Love and Humility.” Humility as Enlightened Leadership. Hauppage, NY: NOVA Publishers. See also Gulbrandsen, K. & Caldwell, C. (In Press). “Love and Humility – Enhancing Leadership Success” in Love: The Heart of Leadership. Caldwell, C., & Anderson, V. (Eds.). Hauppage, NY: NOBA Publishers.

[22] See Peck, M. S. (2002). The Road Less Traveled, 25thAnniversary Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[23] See White, M. D. (2010). “Loving Yourself: How Important Is It?” Psychology Today, April 29, 2010 found online on January 21, 2019 at

[24] Gulbrandsen, K., & Caldwell, C. (In Press), op. cit.

[25] DePree, M. (2004). Leadership is an Art. New York: Crown.

[26] Greenleaf, R. K. (2015). The Servant as Leader. Atlanta, GA: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

[27] Pava, M. (2003). Leading with Meaning: Using Covenantal Leadership to Build a Better Organization. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

[28] Transformational leadership is addressed beautifully in Burns, J. M. (2010). Leadership. New York: Harper.

[29] Transformative leadership is described in Caldwell, C., Dixon, R. D., Floyd, L., Chaudoin, J., Post., J., & Cheokas, G. (2012). “Transformative Leadership: Achieving Unparalleled Excellence.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol 109, Iss. 2, pp. 175-187.

[30] Hernandez, M. (2012). “Toward an Understanding of the Psychology of Stewardship.” Academy of Management Review, Vol. 37, Iss. 2, pp. 172-193 and Caldwell, C., Hayes, L.,& Long, D. (2010). “Leadership, Trustworthiness, and Ethical Stewardship.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 96, Iss. 4, pp. 497-512

[31] Anderson, V., & Caldwell, C. (2018),op. cit.

[32] Gulbrandsen, K., & Caldwell, C. (In Press), op. cit.

[33] Caldwell, C., & Dixon, R.D. (2010), op. cit.

[34] Anderson, V., & Caldwell, C. (2018), op. cit.

[35] Gulbrandsen, K., & Caldwell, C. (In Press), op. cit.

[36] Anderson, V., & Caldwell, C. (2018), op. cit.

[37] Feurestein’s actions and the Malden Mill fire which preceded them are chronicled in the 60 Minutes story, “The Mensch of Malden Mills.” CBS News found online on March 9m 2019 at

[38] Ibid.

[39] The outstanding achievements of NUCOR Steel are cited in many places, including Pfeffer, J. (1998). The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[40] Gulbrandsen, K., & Caldwell, C. (In Press), op. cit. See also Block, P., (2013). Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[41] See Applebaum, E., Bailey, T., & Berg, P. (2000). Manufacturing Advantage: Why High Performance Work Systems Pay Off. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[42] Covey’s commitment to values and principles are identified in many of his books. See, for example, Covey, S. R. (1992). Principle-Centered Leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[43] For a distinction between “Yous” and “Its” see Buber, M., & Kaufmann, M. (1971). I and Thou. New York: Touchstone Books.

[4] Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[45] See Mann & Harter (2016). “The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis.” Gallup Workplace, January 7, 2016 and found online on March 9, 2019 at

[46] See Harrington, M. (2017). “Survey: People’s Trust Has Declined in Business, Media, Government, and NGOs.” Harvard Business Review, January 16, 2017 and found online on March 9, 2019 at

[47] Fanning, B. (2017). “71% Are Looking for New Jobs: 5 Strategies to Address Your Pain.” Inc. November 17, 2017 and found online on March 9, 2019 at

[48] Gulbrandsen, K., & Caldwell, C. (In Press), op. cit.

[49] Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017), op. cit.

[50] Fromm, E. (2000). The Art of Loving: The Centennial Edition. New York: Continuum Publishers.

[51] Caldwell, C., & Dixon, R. D. (2010). “Love, Forgiveness, and Trust: Critical Values of the Modern Leader.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 93, Iss. 1, pp. 91-101.

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September 25, 2019

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