Can You Really Power An Organisation With Love?

Jun 06, 2017 1 Min Read

Leo Tolstoy asserted that “one can live magnificently in this world if one knows how to work and how to love.” Sigmund Freud said, “love and work… work and love, that’s all there is.”

Love and work.

Tolstoy and Freud suggest we need to do both. I suggest we need to do both at the same time.

For centuries, outside the business context, we have heard about the power and virtue of love. Within most religious and spiritual traditions, there is a cornerstone reference to love. Psychologists extol its importance for human flourishing. Artists and philosophers explore its depths.

Given this, here is my question: If just about every person on the planet has at some point spoken about the centrality of love to well-being, why do we hear so little about it in the context of work? It seems we have collectively agreed that this universal “good” is somehow not appropriate in the place where we spend the bulk of our waking hours.

This seems a thoroughly crazy expectation; thus I have been conducting research with Linda Robson to explore this phenomenon.

The good news is that love isn’t as absent from our organisations as one might think.

Some very well-known companies such as Whole Foods (founder John Mackey dedicates a whole chapter to love in his book Conscious Capitalism) and Southwest Airlines (their NYSE ticker code is LUV) make explicit reference to love.

Watch this video on leading with love:
In leadership writing, one of the most widely sold leadership textbooks (The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner) concludes that love is “the secret to life” and consider it the “best kept secret” of great leadership.

We have also seen leadership books written by respected leaders such as John Hope Bryant (Love Leadership) and Joel Manby (Love Works) advocating for love in the work context. In organisational research, Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neil have shown that a culture of love corresponded to increased levels of job satisfaction, teamwork and improved customer outcomes.

This might interest you: What’s Your Love Strategy? Love Is A Leadership Competency Needed For Greatness

To add to this growing body of work, here are some observations and suggestions about love in organisations based on our research with executives at varying levels, in numerous organisations, from financial services to non-profits to championship winning sports teams.


You don’t need to use the word ‘love’.

Is there a word more challenging to define than love? In our conversations with executives who describe themselves privately as love-oriented leaders, we discovered that some explicitly use the word and some don’t.

Furthermore, they have many different meanings and understandings of the word. Our conclusion is that it is not worth the angst to get caught up in definitional issues around love. You might prefer to use words like compassion, respect, or kindness. That’s okay. They all speak to the same core idea, which is intentionally expressing concern and care for the well-being of another.

Decide what it means for you and just get on with it. Furthermore, you don’t even need to talk about it, and many of the executives we have spoken with don’t. They let their actions, policies, products, and services do this instead.


Love is like an operating system.

We have found it helpful to understand love in the business context to be something akin to a philosophy, a mindset, or an intention. This philosophy can have multiple expressions in action and behaviour. In other words, there is no defined list of love behaviours or competencies.

What is more, love doesn’t replace the functional elements of strategy, finance, sales, product development and human resources (HR). Rather, we propose it as the idealised operating system (OS) of an organisation – let’s call it LoveOS. LoveOS supports the “apps” of strategy, finance, etc. As we know from technology, when you have a great OS, the apps work better, independently, and in relation to each other.

While we are cautious to reduce love to a tech metaphor, in our conversations with executives, it works well as it describes the absolute importance of the OS for integrated functioning, but acknowledges that much of the time it is less visible or obvious than the apps themselves.


Love is not rainbows and butterflies.

The expression of love at work can often be tough and challenging. Love is about being comfortable with conflict and difficult conversations. We have seen this expressed by figures such as Martin Luther King, who said that “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.”

Our research has revealed examples of love-oriented organisations in Super Bowl winning teams (Seattle Seahawks), championship-winning professional rugby teams (Saracens Rugby Club), entrepreneurs working hard to meet payroll, and in larger organisations struggling to deal with layoffs.

Leaders quite often use the phrase “tough love” to describe how they think about these aspects of work–life. Love then, does not mean compliance, confluence, or a slavish or insincere commitment to harmony.

Watch this video on Power+Love=Charisma:


It gets expressed from colleagues to suppliers to the planet.

Love gets expressed at multiple levels of the business system. Sometimes we have heard about it being expressed towards a colleague, sometimes within teams, sometimes within a whole company through HR practices, and sometimes outside the organisation, such as with relationships with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders.

I have previously suggested that love is indeed the underlying impulse behind corporate citizenship and sustainability. We believe that love is a much-needed antidote to many of the challenges facing our communities and planet.


Love is more easily spoken about in founder-led or family businesses, and the military.

We have discovered, unexpectedly, that some types of organisations seem to be natural habitats for love. Our analysis reveals that founder-led businesses, family businesses, and the military are where we have seen the most frequent references to (and comfort with) love. Why is this? Our understanding is that love requires high levels of personalisation – it is the opposite of the detached corporate automaton.

Does that mean that a large organisation cannot be love-oriented? No, but you might need to start in smaller spheres of influence like your team, rather than waiting or wishing for the whole organisation to change, or for your chief executive officer to send a company-wide email proclaiming love.


Doubt and ambivalence is totally normal.

One thing we know for sure from years of studying this subject is that it will raise a few eyebrows. Talking about love is not the norm. We know that. We have two insights to offer.

First of all, if you are interested in this subject, know that it bumps up against the general narrative around business. For that reason, it takes great courage to lead from love. It is an act of leadership, no matter what your formal position in an organisation.

Second, we have learnt that speaking about love evokes deeper reflections within the listener about their own personal relationship to the subject of love and their history of work and sometimes even personal relationships going all the way back to childhood.

It is therefore possible that a person objecting to the idea of love has had a bad experience in the past. This is totally understandable and should be respected. Preaching about love, or trying to convert people in organisations does not work in our experience.


It is always there – we just need to pay attention.

We often get asked, “How do I bring love to my organisation?” We think a better question is “How do I amplify and support the love that is already here?” Like a Wi-Fi signal, just because we don’t see it, and sometimes are not tuned to it, it does not mean it isn’t there.

The great thing about love is that it is always present. We just need to tune into it. The moment we do, we see it. Love’s presence is evidenced throughout a typical day at work, often in the small interactions, which could easily be overlooked.

A welcoming smile in the morning, a kind word from a colleague about your contribution to a project, concern or assistance when a co-worker is struggling, an expression of gratitude, or a simple ‘thank you’ to a stranger.

Our strongest message to you as a reader is that love is neither alien nor misplaced in our organisations. If you consider love to be a worthwhile pursuit in any aspect of your life, then you have the opportunity to express love throughout your life, including at work.

As a leader, as a colleague, as a provider of goods and services, commit to expressing love at work. In so doing, you will be aligning yourself to a philosophy that lies at the heart of all the teachings of a well-lived life.


Duncan Coombe is adjunct professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at IMD Business School. He co-authored the award-winning book Care to Dare and advises organisations on matters relating to human growth and development. You can connect with him on Twitter @duncancoombe.

Originally published on Harvard Business Review Online

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