Leaders: Make Love the Top Priority

leadership is love

Make Love the Top Priority 

Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur and the author of Serve to Be Great and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule. He is also an international keynote speaker, a trainer, and a consultant.  He works to develop highly effective leaders who achieve lasting success by focusing on serving and inspiring greatness in the people around them.

Matt recently presented a challenge to leaders everywhere: Make Love the Top Priority. His TedTalk has just been released and is worthy of your time:

After hearing his talk, I reached out to Matt to learn more about his research and perspective.


What Love Looks Like in Practice

You make a compelling business case for why leaders should make love the top priority instead of profit or other goals of the organization.  Could you tell us more about what the love you describe actually looks like in practice?

One reason the word love often isn’t used in business environments is precisely because its definition is not so precise, or at least not universally agreed upon.

When I use the word love, I’m not referring to a feeling.

We don’t have to like a person to love a person.  When we love a person, we act in ways that contribute to her or his long-term well-being.

Thus, I think the first and most important step for loving employees well is to use long-term well-being as a filter for every decision we make.  If a course of action would negatively impact the long-term well-being of employees, it should be eliminated as on option.

Applying this filter can go a long way to helping employees feel as though leaders truly care about them.

We can take this a step further by actively looking for ways to improve the well-being of employees.

In addition to these simple (although not easy) approaches, we need to spend quality time with employees.  We need to spend time interacting with employees regarding topics that don’t involve what they’re producing for the organization.

When we have these interactions, we need to be fully present – not multi-tasking – listening deeply so that the person feels heard and cared for.



Do you think it is always possible to eliminate courses of action that would negatively impact the long-term well-being of employees, even in severe economic downturns?

I believe it is, in most cases.

There will always be situations that are so extreme that if layoffs do not happen a company will go out of business and everyone will be out of jobs.

In those situations, leaders who have consistently demonstrated that they love employees have a huge advantage.  When they communicate to employees that laying people off is the only option for keeping the company alive, morale does not necessarily have to decline at all.

Employees trust that the leader wouldn’t be laying people off unless it was absolutely necessary.



However, I believe that too many leaders tend to react too quickly with short-term fixes when they experience a downturn in sales,

For instance, the first things to go in large companies tend to be training and benefits.

Does that quickly reduce expenses?  Of course, but at a huge hidden cost.

When training and benefits go, an organization then has employees who are less motivated and less equipped to serve the customer well.  This will often tend to decrease sales even further.

Then, unfortunately, many leaders feel as though their only option to “make the numbers work” is to start laying people off.

The message this sends to employees is absolutely devastating.

Leaders are essentially telling people that through no fault of their own, they are going to lose their livelihood – their ability to care for themselves and their families – so that the organization doesn’t have to report a loss.

It is almost impossible to get a culture back to growth from there because it is almost impossible to ever regain trust from employees, or to ever have them believe that we care about them.

In the Great Recession of 2009, there were some lovely examples of alternatives to layoffs.

One of those is SAS.  Founder and CEO Jim goodnight noticed that many of his people were talking about the potential of layoffs because everyone else in the industry was laying off employees. He knew that as long as people were worried about their jobs, they wouldn’t be bringing their best selves to work, and they almost certainly wouldn’t be developing innovative solutions that would add value for their customers.

At the time SAS had a 33-year streak of record revenues. Jim goodnight was willing to sacrifice that record to demonstrate to his people that he cares about them more than some financial metric.

He made an announcement to all of the SAS employees that SAS would not layoff a single person as a result of the recession.  He just asked them to be extra mindful of their spending.

And, as a result, people went back to work, they felt safe, and they did, in fact, innovate.  In 2009 SAS had one of their more innovative years and continued their streak of record revenues.

Other companies faced more pressing issues, like potentially going out of business if they didn’t dramatically reduce costs.

In those cases, some leaders offered furloughs to all employees so that everyone would have their pay reduced a little bit, but no one would have to lose their job.

As Simon Sinek wrote about in his book Leaders Eat Last, Bob Chapman, the CEO of Barry Wehmiller, decided on furloughs for his employees.  Because he has created a culture where employees feel cared for by their leaders and their peers, something rather interesting happened when they asked everyone in the company to have a 30-day furlough.

Bob phrased it in a way that doing this resulted in everyone suffering a little bit so no one had to suffer a lot.  Employees actually came up with a solution among themselves to make sure that people who could not afford 30 days of non-paid vacation would be okay. People who wanted extra vacation swapped out their furloughs with those who couldn’t afford it.

Morale at the company actually increased significantly during the downturn that created so many problems elsewhere.



Practicing Servant Leadership

Are you aware of any research on how many leaders are currently leading with love as the top priority, practicing what is often called servant leadership?

Yes, at a high level, and it seems that we’re moving in the right direction.

But what excites me most is the interactions I have with leaders.  Literally everyone I meet wants to lead in this way, even if imperfectly.

Everyone seems to know, somewhere inside themselves, that making love the top priority is not only effective for achieving long-term business success but also for living a happier, more meaningful life.

However, I meet very few leaders who are doing this as well as they’d like to.



Why do you think that is?

Well, for leaders of most startups and publicly-traded companies, there is tremendous pressure to focus on short-term financial metrics.

Most startups face immediate death if they run out of capital, and most senior leaders in public companies face termination if they fail to turn a profit for more than a quarter or two.

For leaders in public companies, they face the daunting task of getting buy-in from directors and other shareholders, which requires those stakeholders to agree that long-term shareholder wealth is actually best optimized by making love the top priority instead of quarterly profit.

The vast majority of leaders have it much easier, but there are still three big obstacles that I see keeping many of them from consistently loving well.

The first one is the pressure and conditioning compelling us to hit the numbers, just like startup and public company leaders deal with.

We have been conditioned our whole lives, from a variety of sources, to see winning, achieving goals, and “hitting the numbers” as the definition of success.  Unfortunately, I think messages like that far outnumber the message that sustainable success is actually a result of prioritizing loving people well over short-term wins.

Most of us have a lot of work to do to undo all that conditioning.

A very simple but effective first step is to change our job description.

I don’t mean going to HR and asking them to officially rewrite the job description. What I mean is just internally, for ourselves, rewriting our job description in a way that reflects what’s most important.

Most job descriptions jump right in with a description of the responsibilities to the organization.  Instead I recommend we rewrite the 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 would be additional responsibilities.

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

When we do this, we are telling the brain that loving well is important to us. As a result, we start to see opportunities to love better more often, and we’re much more open to opportunities to grow our ability to love better.

This is just like when you buy a new car or learn a new name that you’ve never heard before and then, all of a sudden, you start seeing it or hearing it all over the place.

It’s not because that name or that car just magically multiplied all around you.  It’s because the part of the brain that filters out information we don’t think is important has stopped filtering that information out, and is instead allowing us to see what we now think is important.

The second obstacle is that we’re simply too busy.

Most leaders I’m aware of are not very good at saying no to things, and our culture has somehow seemed to create the myth that being busy means being successful.

Unfortunately, there is a direct, negative correlation between how busy we are and how likely we are to love the people around us. The busier we are, the less likely we are to love well.

So, I highly recommend taking measures to do less and spend more time being.



For those who think that their productivity will somehow go down, I think you’ll be surprised.

I feel very confident that your productivity will actually go up.

Productivity is not a function of how many things we do.  It’s a function of the value we produce.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett is one of the most financially successful human beings in history, and he is well-known for spending very little of his time actually doing things. He spends roughly 90% of his time learning and thinking.

Doing less helps you to get clearer on what really matters and spend more time doing that. And, of course, the most important example of this is getting clear on the truth that what is most important in life is loving well.

By reducing the number of things we do, we are much more likely to love better.

The third obstacle is somewhat related to being busy.

It is the habit of distraction.

I believe most people spend 90% of their time distracted either by obsessive use of technology or by their own thinking (or both). This, of course leads to higher levels of anxiety, which makes us much less likely to love well.

And, it also means that we’re habitually distracted when we’re actually interacting with other human beings.  As a result, people don’t feel loved in our presence because they don’t feel as though we are truly there with them.

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 cultivating the practice of mindfulness and learning to allow mindfulness to permeate as many of our daily activities as possible.

If we cultivate the habit of being mindfully self-aware during our daily activities, we can break the habit of distraction and be more present with the people around us, giving them a visceral, tangible experience of being loved.

In essence, being mindful is being love.

I don’t think there’s a better way to be.

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