I've been working with someone who's in a leadership role but isn't as motivated as he'd like to be. He's doing a perfectly fine job, but it's not meaningful, in the way we feel when a task truly inspires us. Although there's nothing tragic about this person's situation, reflecting on it I was reminded of Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. As I've noted before (under circumstances that were indeed tragic), Frankl identifies three ways in which we can discover meaning: "(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. The first, by way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious. The second and third need further elaboration."
No one's suffering here, thankfully, so at least in this context I can set aside Frankl's third option--but his discussion of the second path to meaning offers advice that I find both profound and practical:
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features of the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true...
If that's not a powerful definition of leadership, I don't know what is. (It's a damn good definition of coaching as well.) To fulfill Frankl's vision of helping others realize their fullest potential, we have to see that potential within them. And to see that full potential, we have to truly understand them--we have to "become aware of their essence." And to do that, we have to love them.
Love is a big word and a frightening one, and we often hesitate to use it in the professional realm, at least in any meaningful way. I suspect that the problem lies with our narrow definition of the term--we hear "love" and automatically think of romantic love, or familial love, and it seems embarrassing or even inappropriate to apply the term to our professional relationships. But in the best of those relationships it's love we feel--not romantic love or familial love, but love nonetheless, and as leaders our ability to summon and express that love can be a powerful force.
I've had the privilege of working with a number of good, very good and truly great leaders in my life, both in my 15-year career before becoming a coach and over the last eight years with my clients and students. The good ones are passionate, but it's not quite love. The very good ones do feel love--for their team, for the work, for life--but they can't quite bring themselves to say it out loud and fully express the feeling. The great ones feel it, and everyone around them knows it and benefits as a result.
At its core leading is an act of love. It's the ability to love those around us in a way that allows us to understand them, to see their full potential, and to enable that potential to be realized. Can we lead this way 24/7? Can we live this way every day? No--at least I certainly can't. There are plenty of days when love is the furthest thing from my mind, and it's all I can do to be civil. But I've experienced it often enough to know how effective I am when I feel it--and even more so when I'm able to convey it to those around me.
Returning to the leader noted above, having considered his struggle to find a deeper source of meaning in his work, I asked him: What form of love might you feel for your people? How might you tap into it and express it? What might you see in them as a result? And what might you do then?
Photo by David Goehring. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.