Love: The Ultimate Competitive Advantage


“A company is stronger if bound by love than by fear.” Herb Kelleher, cofounder of Southwest Airlines

When Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store (NYSE:TCS), first heard Herb Kelleher’s words more than 40 years ago he was, in his own words, “completely taken by it.” In Tindell’s excellent book, Uncontainable, he describes how he and his leadership team went on to shape The Container Store’s outstanding “employee first” culture in ways that reflect love.  He credits the company’s culture for its success.

The first time I heard the word “love” uttered in a corporate context I was teaching a workshop on leadership for Lockheed Martin Aerospace (NYSE:LMT). Before I started, the leader of the unit I was speaking to, retired Vice Admiral of the U.S. Navy and former Navy flyer Willie Moore, told the room full of mostly men they needed to love the people they were responsible for leading. You could have heard a pin drop. Coming from this “man’s man,” the L-word was completely unexpected.

Moore went on to explain to his leaders that they may be the most important people in the lives of the individuals they lead. He described how people today are lonely. They may live far away from family members or have few close friends because they are not involved in church or community organizations where most friendships are developed.

Moore wasn't just expressing his opinion. Research in a variety of fields confirms his view.  In 1970, only 17% of U.S. households were single-person. By 2013, the most current year data is available, the percentage of single-person households soared to 27.4%, the highest in U.S. history.  Many doctors and mental health professionals today talk about the epidemic of loneliness and half of Americans have addictions that research has found can be attributable to loneliness.

Beyond helping the lonely, there are several compelling additional reasons outstanding leaders such as Kip Tindell, Herb Kelleher and Willie Moore are spot on when it comes to seeing the difference love can make in the workplace.

1. Love inspires performance excellence and resilience

Serving others is a reflection of love. Research by Adam Grant, et al., has shown that, in a variety of settings, making it clear how the work benefits other human beings has improved performance and protected people from stress and burnout.  Radiologists evaluating CT scans increased their diagnostic accuracy 46% when the CT scans included facial photos of the patients.  High school teachers who believed they were making a difference were found to be less likely to burnout than those who didn’t.  The most effective leaders inspire people by clearly articulating how the work they do together is helping other human beings and how each person’s individual role on the team makes a difference.

2. Love pulls together

Taking time to get to know and care for the people you lead brings about greater unity.  This unity is especially important as your team faces adversity.  When love exists among the members of a group, they are more likely to pull together than to tear one another apart. The connection they feel helps them overcome the inevitable obstacles every organization encounters.

3. Love overlooks minor offenses

When love is present in a team, department or organization, people are more likely to assume the best in others and give them the benefit of the doubt.  For example, if a colleague says something that is irritating, they may be inclined to cut them some slack.  Absent love, potentially offending words or deeds are more likely to bring about retaliation and sprout rivalries that undermine performance.

4. Love reduces stress

One 20-year study of workplace environments found that those cultures that lacked supportive relationships increased the risk of mortality by 240%, which makes sense when you consider that chronic stress is a leading contributor to premature death. Toxic stress makes people feel fearful, timid or paralyzed. Love among the members of a group serves to reduces toxic stress so that people perform at the top of their game.

Critics say that love makes a team, department or organization too soft. This objection is easily overcome by clearly communicating that being intentional about achieving excellence and results is expected.  Developing and tracking metrics helps keep these objectives top of mind so people don't lose sight of their importance.  And when standards are not met, action should be taken to close the performance gap.  This reinforces that, and along with love, task excellence and results are essential.

Today, few leaders use the L-word.  So the next time you hear one speaking about “love” in terms of how colleagues treat one another and work together pay close attention.  You may be seeing a future Herb Kelleher or Kip Tindell in the making.  Love is a powerful source of competitive advantage.

Adapted from Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.

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