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Leading with Love: Rehumanising the Workplace

By Dr Karen Blakeley

Karen Blakeley spent ten years at the University of Winchester Business School specialising in leadership development, change management and business ethics. Her latest book, Leading with Love: Rehumanising the Workplace (2021) which was co-written with Chris Blakeley, argues that what is most needed now among our leaders is emotional and spiritual maturity.

Have you ever been led by someone who leads with love? You might think that it’s a strange question, particularly as the word ‘love’ is rarely applied to formal relationships in the workplace. But when I asked people this question as part of the research for my recently published book, Leading with Love, they knew instinctively what I meant. Some laughed, some reflected, some looked cynical, and a very small number lit up and started to describe a manager who had helped them grow and flourish; who seemed interested in them as a person; and who had shown them some form of kindness and support.

So people knew what I meant by ‘leading with love’, even if they used other terms such as empathy or emotional intelligence. Furthermore, it was clear that those who led with love continued to have an effect on their direct reports years later, when they were recalled with fondness and respect. All these leaders had influenced the leadership styles and thinking of their direct reports.

But not many of my respondents had been able to name such a leader – it seemed they were a rare species. Given an increasingly target-driven world, where stress seemed to pervade the workplace, I was interested in how and why a few people were still able to lead with love. As a result, I decided to conduct some exploratory research based on a small sample of nine leaders, who had been nominated by direct reports as people who led with love.

I was initially underwhelmed by what I found. These leaders did nothing more than what research over the past 100 years had indicated was best practice: they focused on the needs of the task and the people; they understood and nurtured the talents of the individuals they led; they built teams based on learning, mutual respect, performance, openness and honesty; they had ideas about what they wanted to achieve (i.e. ‘vision’); they walked the talk and had a clear set of values which they upheld even in difficult circumstances. In other words, those who led with love managed to implement values that would be endorsed by most humanists.

But this simply prompted another question: why were these leaders able and willing to implement best practice while most were not? This is a question that has broader significance. If we all have an idea of what admirable human behaviour looks like, why is it so hard to implement? For example, Anastasia Lijadi (2019) argues that there are three sets of values that are universal to all cultures: positive social interaction; the fulfilment of basic needs; and subjective wellbeing. My research was concerned with positive social interaction, including values such as love, forgiveness, warm social relationships, benevolence and belonging. These values seem to characterise most human value systems regardless of culture, and yet most people find it difficult to implement them in their daily lives.

There are clearly many complicated reasons for this observation, but my research was, in a way, addressing a related question: why were the leaders in my study able to lead with love, while most were not, and what helped them to implement best practice? Looking at the research through this new lens, my co-author and I decided to represent the findings using the image of a tree. The roots symbolised the ‘deep motivators’ of our leaders, what we termed ‘resourcing’. The trunk represented the idea of ‘character formation’ or what we called ‘channelling’. The canopy symbolised the ‘expression of love in action’ or ‘embodying’ – these were the behaviours that resulted from the underlying motivations and character formation of our leaders. When looking at the deep motivators or resources of our leaders we found that all of them had clearly expressed personal, humane values that they had developed throughout their lives. They were often brought up in households that promoted benevolent values, including love of and respect for others. All of them spontaneously referred to their values as important foundations of their leadership style. Some had a sense of a normative philosophy or faith that guided their action whilst others had simple epithets that guided their action such as ‘do as you would be done by’, the golden rule, or even the idea of karma (an idea that was picked up out of context and was not rooted in an Eastern faith). For these leaders, values were living guides to action and a source of wisdom that they relied upon on a daily basis.

Character formation, or ‘channelling’, referred to the process of differentiating one’s ego drives from one’s higher motivations – a process which has been studied by developmental psychologists for many years. Most models of human development demonstrate a progression from egocentric beliefs and drives towards more humanistic (and latterly ecocentric) motivations, but according to Lawrence Kohlberg only 10-15 per cent of people reach the higher levels. This is because channelling and character formation is hard work. It entails the processes of reflection, honest self-evaluation, learning from mistakes, and the development of self-love and self-compassion, followed by the development of love and compassion for others.

Our ‘channel’ is often blocked by normal human drives and emotions such as selfishness, greed, fear, anxiety, anger, the need for security, the need to be liked and to fit in. We have to work to manage these normal human energies. But instead, many of us assume that these are natural manifestations of our personalities. As a result, we may identify with them, not even attempt to manage them or, especially in certain religious communities, we may try to repress them. This only forces our selfish energies into our unconscious, transforming them into ‘blindspots’, which affect our behaviour in ways we do not fully understand. Depth psychology, meditation and Eastern philosophies can all be particularly helpful in identifying and unpicking these blindspots.

Finally, ‘embodying’ refers to specific behaviours we adopt to put our values into practice. Leading with Love refers to a number of examples of leaders risking their careers to embody their values e.g. challenging a boss who bullied their team; or arguing for a humane approach towards a redundancy drive, against the views of the CEO and other influential board members. This category also refers to behaviours such as reflecting on mistakes and making public apologies; going out of one’s way to help a direct report who had contracted a severe illness; and making an effort to understand the motivations of one’s peers, direct reports and bosses, so that leaders could demonstrate compassion rather than judgement or blame. These behaviours stemmed from the previous two processes: leaders were able to embody their values because they had a clear sense of what these values were, and had spent time reflecting on their own inner processes to promote self-awareness.

Clearly, acting humanely (in the workplace or outside), is difficult and emotionally challenging work. It requires not only that we craft a set of values reflecting what all societies most admire in human beings (benevolence, warmth, kindness, altruism), but also that we do the inner work that enables us to embody these values in daily life. Whilst this might come naturally to some people (particularly those who were brought up in loving households), for most it does not. This does not mean we should blame and judge people we deem as leading and acting egoically (though we may condemn their behaviour), as this would be a sign of our own failure to lead with love. It does, however, mean that we need to get down to the hard work of understanding ourselves, managing our egos and building relationships of compassion, understanding and respect – particularly with those we find most challenging. Only then can we say that we are trying to lead with love; trying to live out our humanist values. Failures and challenges, as well as successes and joys, all come with the territory. They are the bases upon which our moral, emotional and spiritual growth are founded.


Kohlberg L. (1984) Essays on moral development: Vol. 2. The psychology of moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Lijadi, A.A. (2019) What are universally accepted human values that define ‘a good life’? Historical perspective of value theory. International Institute for Systems Analysis, working paper 19-006. Available at:

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Aug 14, 2023

I think the phrase 'leading with love' is - frankly - just a gimmick.

It undermines the true meaning of the word 'love'.

Real love is something one feels on very few occasions in life.

It is an emotion which can be utterly overwhelming and can be utterly life-changing.

My experience in leading teams towards common goals is far more pedestrian than that.

You can have humane principals such as mutual respect, understanding and learning in the mix.

The most important principle - in my opinion - for a leader is to have a razor-sharp vision.

A razor-sharp vision which motivates the team leader and his colleagues towards a clear goal.

The clearer the vision, the better the team will…

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