Can You Lead With Love?

Every one of us shares the same deep psychological need to be seen, respected, and valued. In fact, Mathew Lieberman, social neuroscience researcher and Professor of Psychology at UCLA suggests that when we feel isolated and alone, our brains process it as a survival threat – alongside safety, shelter, sustenance (food and water) and sex. It explains why research shows that loneliness negatively impacts health as much as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.

It also explains why researchers have found that when leaders express genuine care – or what is called companionate love – for their people, their levels of engagement, performance, and wellbeing all improve significantly, especially during times of uncertainty.

“The more leaders express caring and compassion and appreciation and gratitude, the more productive workers are, the more engaged they are, the more they feel like they can manage their own wellbeing”

explained Associate Professor Mandy O’Neil from the George Mason University School of Business when I interviewed her recently.

Mandy’s research suggests that the amount of affection, caring, compassion and tenderness shown by leaders makes a significant difference to worker wellbeing and performance.  And don’t worry, it doesn’t have to involve physical touch. Leaders’ words, gestures and actions are just as important, as is the way that they communicate. The irony is that this powerful ‘secret weapon’ for improving creativity, performance and productivity in workplaces, doesn’t need to cost organisations a lot of money.

So what’s the sticking point?

In my experience as a senior leader and now working with them for many years, there are three things getting in the way:

  1. discomfort with emotions in the workplace
  2. concern of opening an emotional Pandora’s Box that they won’t be able to close
  3. fear of being perceived to cross a ‘professional line’

But far from being something to avoid, there are ways for leaders to express companionate love without it feeling weird or uncomfortable and that mean you can amplify your team’s performance, resilience and wellbeing.

Showing the Love without Being Weird

There is no denying that the currency of companionate love is emotions. When you can see emotions as ‘useful data’ rather than ‘unnecessary mess’ you can harness the energy generated from positive emotions, build tolerance to get comfortably uncomfortable with negative emotions, and develop the emotional wisdom – for yourself and your team – that thriving and struggle often go hand in hand.

As you experience struggle and see others do the same, show compassion by choosing generosity and curiosity over judgement and by speaking and listening from the heart as well as the head. When you do this, you’ll create psychological safety that will help you and your people be more willing to learn from their mistakes, both individually and collectively.

Role model and create opportunities for team members to express and receive gratitude and appreciation. In doing so you’ll harness strengths, create a sense of meaning and contribution, and create win-win-win outcomes for your people individually and collectively.

And it’s important to remember that companionate love isn’t necessarily ‘easy’. Caring means that you ask your people to lean into their responsibilities, that you explicitly ask for commitment, invite ownership, and foster continual learning. By creating a culture of personal accountability and shared ownership you will enable high performance.

Far from being soft, companionate love is a vital resource that every leader can be growing and drawing on. Even just a small daily dose goes a long way in sustaining a team.

Here are 5 ways you can Share the (companionate) Love with your team:
  1. Encourage learning. At the end of the week ask your team to move through the Learning Loop by asking, What went well? Where did they struggle? What did they learn?  How will we apply this next week?   Not only will this help your team more openly discuss their challenges and setbacks, it will also help you have the compassion to learn and grow together.
  2. Create opportunities to laugh and play together. Share a silly video, a favorite tune, a funny story, a witty joke, or a quirky dress up theme for video meetings.  Studies show that shared laughter can foster trust and connections.
  3. Appreciate strengths. At the end of each day take a few minutes to genuinely thank one of your team members for the work they did and be specific about the strength you saw them drawing on. 
  4. Make it safe to ask for help. Encourage a giving culture in your team to ensure people have the resources they need to stay on top of their work and builds connection, warmth and trust in your team’s relationships.  Model how to ask for help by making a daily SMART request: Specific, Meaningful, Actionable, Realistic and Timed.
  5. Celebrate the positive difference your people make. Each week ask for one piece of feedback from someone your team’s work has helped – it could be an email, short video, or even a 5-minute guest in your team meeting.  Thanking your team for the difference they are making will boost their commitment and job satisfaction.

So whilst we may like to think that we are rational, clear thinking and independent, the reality is that we are driven by emotions, wired for connection and are better working and playing together than we are alone. By role modelling care, compassion, appreciation, accountability and emotional wisdom with yourself and your team you’ll create a culture of companionate love that will sustain you through the good times and the bad.

Now that’s what I call Becoming AntiFragile.

Dr Paige Williams

Dr Paige Williams

International Speaker, Author, Mentor


Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.

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