Feature Article: Leaders Want to be Loved: What’s So Wrong with That?

Amiel Handelsman

Amiel HandlesmanOver the past year I received similar introductions to five bright executives in different organizations. Before each coaching assignment began, I was cautioned, “(S)he’s very hard-nosed. Doesn’t like touchy-feely. Focus on business issues. No soft stuff.”

In each situation, I realized that this advice was both helpful and limited. On the one hand, I interpreted it as a useful reminder for me to “activate Orange” (in Spiral Dynamics lingo) when interacting with these leaders. This meant ramping up the language of achievement, possibility, and business outcomes and centering myself (even more than normally) to meet their energy. On the other hand, I realized I could no more easily exclude the “soft stuff” from coaching than I could exclude my biceps from doing curls. It’s always there—in my client, in myself, and in the relationship between us.

How might we interpret the statement that an executive “doesn’t like touchy-feely?” First, it’s an assessment, not a fact. Second, this assessment is based on a particular worldview. Third, integrally-informed coaching invites a broader worldview and therefore a different assessment—in this case, the assessment that coaching the whole person, including their emotions and body, works better. So this is what I chose to do with all five leaders.

How did these executives respond to the “soft stuff?” They ate it up. Consider these numbers:

  • 5 of 5 spoke with passion about why they do what they do.
  • 5 of 5 told me about broken relationships they were consciously mending.
  • 4 of 5 brought up the ways they were practicing new ways of speaking and listening at home and with their families.
  • 3 of 5 regularly did self-observation exercises about what they were feeling and how this showed up in their bodies.
  • 2 of 5 gave me at least one hug.
  • 2 of 5 cried at least twice during our meetings.
  • 0 of 5 told me the conversations were too personal.
  • 0 of 5 indicated a preference to talk about revenues and costs rather than people, relationships and emotions.

And 5 of 5 achieved the intended outcomes of coaching.

What’s going on here? How is it that people supposedly averse to the “soft stuff” end up accepting it and even yearning for it?

My answer: leaders long to be treated as whole human beings—to be seen and appreciated for all of who they are. Not just a box on an organizational chart. Not just someone responsible for X dollars or Y number of people. And not even as someone strong on these five competencies and weak on those five. Instead, they want to respected as their wholeness. And they yearn for a safe space to reveal the things they assume others don’t want to hear or can’t be trusted with knowing.

In short, leaders want to be loved. Not just at home. Not just by family and close friends. But from the people they spend thousands of hours with every year: their colleagues at work.

This is a wonderfully hopeful view of leadership. It is also a vast generalization. So let me offer two caveats for the integrally-informed.

Integral Caveat #1: not all leaders are equally capable of receiving love or even being aware that love is present. Even though all leaders want to be loved, how they want to be loved as a whole human being differs. Why? Because whatconstitutes their wholeness varies based on factors like their developmental level, gender, cultural origin, horizontal interpretive lens (e.g. as delineated by the Enneagram), personal history, and body.

Integral Caveat #2: not all coaches are equally capable of giving love. I consider myself at an early-middle stage of my self-development, yet my capacity to love leaders has changed markedly in the nearly ten years I’ve been coaching. Sure, my egocentric love is still alive and strong, and the ethnocentric variety isn’t too far behind. What has changed is the worldcentric stance, the one that embraces all of us within my sphere of self-interest. Whereas in the late ‘90s it comprised about 12 percent of my love, I’d estimated that figure now to be upwards of 25 percent. (Small steps, my friends, small steps.)

In summary: all leaders want to be loved, and the nature of this love depends upon the leader’s capacity to receive love and the coach’s capacity to give it.

What implication does this have for how leaders approach their everyday work of managing teams, crafting strategy, assessing talent, and executing toward results? Fortunately, love flows in both directions. Managers at any level can choose to grow their own capacity to love the people with whom they work, keeping in mind the same two caveats offered about coaching. I recommend starting by focusing on their direct reports. Here is a practice for doing so:

Leadership Practice: Honoring Your Direct Reports

  1. Find a quiet space and block off 2 hours of uninterrupted time
  2. Make a list of your direct reports
  3. For each person, answer the following questions
  • On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = toxic, 2 = mediocre, 3=neutral, 4=good, 5=great), how would you assess the quality of your relationship with him right now?
  • What are her principal strengths? When was the last time you acknowledged through words or symbolic action your awareness of them and how they help the organization? When was the last time you helped her redesign her job around them? If the answer to either question is “not recently,” what actions will you take to do so in the next month?
  • What is the one person, activity or idea in life he get most energized by? When was the last time you spent fifteen minutes asking him about it and deeply listening? If the answer is “I can’t remember,” when will you do this in the next ten business days?
  • What is one positive dimension of her character that she longs to be recognized and appreciated for yet rarely is? When will you do this in the next five business days?
  • What is one emotion you think she feels around you yet keeps under wraps? What can you do in the next five business days to legitimate this emotion?
  • What dimension of yourself do you need to develop to take the actions you have outlined in this exercise—in short, to love more fully?
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Amiel Handelsman is Principal of CuriousLeader Consulting LLC, an executive coaching firm based in Portland, Oregon. His article about Integral CoachingSM, co-authored with James Flaherty, was published in 2004 by the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations. Amiel publishes a monthly newsletter called How We Lead. He plans to run for public office in the next five years and is exploring what an integrally-informed approach to campaigning, legislating, and governing would look like. Amiel can be reached at