Why The Best Leaders Make Love Their Top Priority

It’s fitting that the last post of the year for The Leader’s Digest is about love. You might think the word 'love' has no place when talking about leadership. But I strongly disagree. It has everything to do with it - the best gestures of leadership have always had love at their centre.

Love in leadership shows up in many guises - compassion, empathy, courage, kindness and gratitude - to name just a few.

Last week, I watched the inspiring and thought-provoking TED talk below about love and leadership.

I also got the chance to chat via Zoom with the person who gave the talk, Matt Tenney.

What a dude!

Matt is the author of “Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom,” which is used in the leadership development programs of universities, government bodies, and companies to help leaders achieve better outcomes while living happier, more fulfilling lives. Matt is also the founder and CEO of The Generous Group, a marketing company whose primary goal is to create the conditions for world peace by loving employees well, helping employees to become happier, more loving human beings, and by inspiring other leaders and organisations to make love their top priority.

His TED talk is about why the best leaders make love the top priority in their organisations.

The talk is only nine minutes long and the topic a very nuanced one. So I decided to interview Matt to give you a more intimate exploration of the topic. But first, check out the video below.

And before I hand you over to Matt, I’d like to say a heartfelt THANK YOU for reading and sharing The Leader’s Digest this year. Writing is one of the things I love doing most in my life and I hope The Leader's Digest blog posts have helped you in some small way in your leadership journey in 2019. Love, Suzi

Here’s Matt’s video...


Suzi: I know a lot of people will think organisations making love the top priority is a bit soft. But as you point out in the TED talk, the bottom-line results for companies who DO make love the top priority – when compared to those who put profit as their number one priority – are pretty compelling.

It seems it makes business sense, as well as being the right thing to do.

Let’s say I’m a fact-based, hard-nosed CEO or Chair of a Board who is all about the numbers. Give me some logic and reasoning as to why I should put people before profits in terms of my priorities.

Matt: You actually may not want to, depending on what your goals are.

For instance, if you're running a startup and your goal is a fast successful exit, it may not make the most business sense to make love the top priority, although it is still certainly the more noble thing to do.

Making love the top priority is not a short-term play.

However, if your goal is to build an organisation that lasts and experiences long-term growth and profitability, there is no question that you will be much more likely to achieve those goals if you make love the top priority.

The Harvard study I cited in the talk, although very compelling in terms of the difference in outcomes between ‘people first’ companies and ‘profit first’ companies, is actually a rather weak example in my opinion.

I used it in the talk because of the precision with which the study was designed and how dramatic the results were. However these were not necessarily companies that did an exceptional job at loving their employees. They were just companies that were at least intentional about trying to do so. Nevertheless, as I mentioned in the talk, they absolutely crushed their profit-focused competitors.

There is a huge body of research correlating taking good care of employees and exceptional long-term business outcomes. Most of it is based on a leadership philosophy known as servant leadership, because that is the leadership philosophy that is most aligned with the idea of making loving employees a higher priority than profit.

Probably the most famous of the research is that done by Good To Great author Jim Collins.

Collins’ 5-year study identified 11 companies with Level 5 Leaders (the Good to Great companies). From 1995 to 2005, stocks from the 500 largest publicly-held companies averaged a 10.8% return. The Level 5 (Level 5 leadership is similar to servant leadership) leader companies identified by Collins’ research averaged a 17.5% return.

As my friend, Ben Lichtenwalner, points out his blog, Dr. James Sipe and Dr. Don Frick compared Collins’ Good to Great companies to “eleven publicly-traded companies that are most frequently cited in the literature as being servant-led” in their book, Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership.

Where the Good to Great companies point to Level 5 Leadership as a component of company success, the Sipe / Frick study pointed to Servant Leadership as the predominant factor for success.

In the Seven Pillars study, comparing the 10.8% average return to the 17.5% Good to Great returns, servant-led companies delivered a 24.2% return.

If you'd like to see collections of studies demonstrating how effective this practice of loving employees is, below are two resources for you with a large number of studies demonstrating the link between taking good care of employees and a wide variety of business outcomes.

Highlights of Scientific Research on Servant Leadership

3 Studies Prove Servant Leadership Good for Business

Southwest Airlines, who you mention in your TED talk, is such a great example of an organisation that has taken this philosophy…well…to heart. Which other organisations spring to mind when you think of this mind-set? And what are they doing to show they put employees first?

(Nice pun, Suzi. Living in New Zealand, you might not be aware that the new Southwest logo is nothing but a heart.)

COSTCO, Google and SAS are some recognisable examples that immediately come to mind.

Costco has consistently compensated its employees significantly better than similar competitors in the retail industry, and has created a workplace culture where team members feel respected and valued. So it should come as no surprise that this company has dominated in its industry.

SAS is one of the best examples. Not only does it compensate employees very well and offer absolutely incredible benefits, but it really takes work-life balance extremely seriously. Employees are strongly encouraged to work no more than 40 hours per week.

This, to me, really demonstrates what I am speaking about in the TED talk. I'm not talking about great workplace perks and having fun all the time. Employees would love to have a keg in the office, I'm sure, but I'm not sure that that's best for employee well-being.

What I'm talking about is consistently demonstrating behaviours that have a positive impact on the long-term well-being of employees.

This is actually something Google has been dinged for in recent years.

Ironically, they have made their campus too nice. It's so nice, in fact, that employees don't want to leave, and they end up working too much and not having a good work life balance.

But because Google actually does care about employees, they work to address issues like this instead of just ignoring them.

You’ve done a lot in the leadership space with your books Serve to be Great and The Mindfulness Edge, as well as other great initiatives.  What made you decide to do this TED talk and why now?

The short answer is that love is my top priority.

Four and one-half years ago, when my wife and I found out she was pregnant, I was traveling 50 times a year for speaking engagements.

I Immediately decided to slow my travel schedule down so I could actually be present with my children as they grow up. In fact I've shortened my work day to about 5 1/2 hours on average so that I can be with my kids every morning before school and every afternoon after school.

Although I have no desire to completely give up speaking at live events and serving in that capacity, I decided to start a company with two main objectives in mind.

1) I wanted to be able to provide for my family without having to travel.

2) After speaking about the importance of loving employees and building an amazing workplace culture for five years, I had a burning desire to build a company that I hope will have the best workplace culture on the planet.

It took a little while to find the right business model, but we're doing well now.  And as you can see on The Generous Group website - http://www.thegenerousgroup.com/ - we are more concerned about developing kind compassionate human beings who contribute to the conditions for creating World Peace then we are about enriching owners.

Since we are a marketing company, I eventually began thinking about how to market the message that I'm most passionate about sharing, which is making love a top priority in our lives both at home and at work.

It occurred to me there are several ways to get that message out to many, many people, without having to get on an airplane.

One of them is doing lots of interviews like this one with you.

And I realised that doing a TED talk could be one of the most powerful ways to reach many people without having to travel. A good idea that is delivered in an inspiring way could potentially reach tens or even hundreds of millions of people via the TED platform.

As I thought about this, I also realized that I now have the marketing knowledge and network to give a TED talk some early momentum and help it reach as many people as possible. So I decided that 2019 was the right time.

If I am a leader in an organisation but am not running the show, or on the ‘top table’, what influence can I have? What if my organisation puts profit first? What is within my power to influence or adopt this mind-set in my leadership practice?

You are in luck!

True leadership does not require positional authority. True leadership stems from the influence we build with others.

Thus, even somebody with no leadership title at all can have a huge impact on her team culture and thereby in the culture of the entire organisation, at least to some degree.

I have a former client who has become a friend, who runs a billion-dollar P&L for one of the largest banks in the world. He is the CEO of one of a large number of regions in North America. Year after year after year he outperforms most or all of his peers, depending on the year.

Senior leaders, of course, took notice of this. They asked him what he was doing differently. His answer was simple, “I love the people that work for me and they are my top priority.”

As you could guess, this helped spark a change in the organisation and senior leaders have begun to rethink who they want to promote to leadership positions.

If your team starts to demonstrate consistently better outcomes as a result of taking care of each other and working together better, senior leaders will almost certainly take notice.

Nothing speaks louder than results.

Thus, my recommendation would be to do your best work, continue to grow as much as you can, and work to love the people around you, and inspire the people around you to do the same.

What are some ways I could start to bring compassion and love into my leadership?

First, and most important, I think we need to consciously make love the top priority to begin undoing the conditioning we have received throughout our lives that tells us that winning and achieving goals are more important than love.

A very simple, but effective way to do this is to change our job descriptions.

This doesn't mean that we go to HR to request that they officially rewrite our job descriptions. What it means is just internally, for ourselves, rewriting the job description in a way that reflects what’s most important.

Most job descriptions start with a description of the responsibilities to the organisation. Instead, I recommend that you rewrite your job description so that it starts with this:

“My job is to help the people I work with to thrive: to help them to grow both personally and professionally and to do my best to contribute to their long-term well-being. “

Everything else in the job description is then listed as additional responsibilities.

Once the new job description is written, I highly recommend reading it out loud multiple times every day to gradually undo the conditioning that leads us to believe that achieving the goal and winning are what’s most important.

When we read the new job description out loud multiple times every day, we program the brain to see that loving well is important to us. As a result, we start to see more opportunities to love better, and we’re much more open to opportunities to develop our ability to love better.

It's kind of like when you buy a new car, or learn a new name, and then you start seeing it or hearing it all over the place.

This doesn't happen because that name or that car just magically multiplied. It happens because the part of the brain that filters out information that we don’t think is important has stopped filtering that information out and is now allowing us to see what we have programmed it to see as important.

Even more important, is to develop mindful self-awareness, which as I recall, is one of the 8 pillars of leadership you encourage leaders to develop.

When we are mindfully self-aware, we are aware of our thinking, instead of being identified with thinking and thus distracted by it.

This allows us to be more present with what we're doing and who we are with.

The simplest yet perhaps most tangible way to demonstrate love is to give a person our complete and undivided attention: to be fully present with them.

This is why I'm a huge advocate for engaging in mindfulness training. With mindfulness training, we can systematically break the habit of being distracted and cultivate a new habit of being mindfully self-aware and fully present.

Mindfulness empowers us to consistently embody the love that we aspire to demonstrate.

I’m really curious about this concept of servant leadership at the moment and how I can adopt this approach more every day in my life. What does servant leadership mean to you and how can I make this shift every day towards that?

A strict definition of servant leadership is a style of leadership that considers equally the well-being of all stakeholders. This includes employees, vendors, the community, and owners.

However, it seems to me that the best servant leaders have a slight preference for loving employees. They see that the best way to serve the other stakeholders is to take very good care of the employees.

This is similar to family life. One of the best ways to serve the local community and even the global community is to take very good care of immediate family members and be an example of loving the people in your house well.

I chose to not use the words “servant leadership” in my TED talk because many people have an aversion to the word “servant,” especially people from marginalised populations (and understandably so). However, as I think you are aware, what I described in the TED talk is more or less equivalent to servant leadership.

One of the ways it's been helpful - for me to grow my capacity to make love to top priority and operate as a servant leader - is to find skillful means for making it a habit to serve people on a day-to-day basis, even if it's in small ways, like bringing a smile to someone’s face.

A practice I used for years until it became second nature, was to generate the thought, “How can I help this person?” anytime I began an interaction with another person.

I didn't and still don't always come up with a concrete answer, but just having that attitude opens the mind to so many opportunities to be of service and to make a positive impact on another person's well-being.

I found this practice particularly exciting because practicing this at work means we're more likely to practice it at home. And practicing it at home means we're more likely to practice it at work.

Little by little, we find ourselves positively impacting more and more people even in subtle ways. This, I believe, is one of the secrets to a happy and fulfilling life.

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