Love & Leadership: transforming the way we work

Lab co-founder Charlotte Millar explores the role of love in working for a more sustainable economy.

When we started the experiment we now call The Finance Innovation Lab, we weren’t just trying to bring about radical change in the financial system. We also wanted to model a radically different approach to leading organisations – one which put loving service at the heart of our approach.

Love isn’t a word we often hear at work. It’s not something many people would be comfortable using in meetings, or even at the water cooler. And to a large extent, we don’t talk about love at The Lab, either. We just do it. It’s part of our culture and practice, and it’s been an essential part of The Lab’s story. It makes us who we are.

What is love?

Often, we have very distorted view of what love is. We feel attachment or lust and we call it love. Yet love can take many forms: the Ancient Greeks had around 30 words for our modern equivalent ‘love’. Agape, for example, is the love of humanity; pragma, love which endures and grows over time; and philia, the love between those working for a shared goal. At the heart of the concept is not just connection, but a willingness to place another’s needs before our ego’s impulses.

Ultimately, love means being in service of one another. It means offering slow, steady, patient support to each other – enabling our loved ones to be the best versions of themselves. We put ourselves in service of our friends and family everyday. What if we were to do that at work?

Helping people to be the best versions of themselves isn’t the same as trying to improve each other. It’s about accepting and loving people as they are, while believing in all they can be. As the poet David White says,

“the ultimate touchstone of being in service is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone, to have walked with them and to have believed in them”.

On a practical level, this means understanding the impact we have on each other’s development at work. By acting as witnesses to each other, we illuminate each other’s flaws and strengths. If this is to be unthreatening, it has to come from a place of genuine acceptance of each other – which, in turn, means scrutinising the source of our reflections. Am I truly seeing this person from a place of loving acceptance, or is my ego getting in the way and trying to knock them down?

Resilience and connection

At The Lab we’re not just in service of each other: we’re also in service of our mission, to radically transform the financial system. The level of our ambition and the complexity of the system mean we need to be very resilient, to sustain a position that sits outside of the status quo and to withstand the turbulence of change.

Resilience depends on the connections and relationships we have with each other. It requires an open and collaborative culture where we can make mistakes, fail fast, learn, adapt, and be supportive of one another. It’s a culture that isn’t common at work. In the professional sphere we’re primed to compete: with ourselves, with our colleagues, with other organisations. It’s about winning at all costs, leading with our egos, rather than our hearts. To transform this into a culture that enables us to care for each other, we have to actively embed the structures and practices of collaboration into our organisations, including practices that allow us to bring more of our ‘whole selves’ to work.

One such way we do this at The Lab is to start all our meetings, including our Board meetings, with ‘check ins’ to share how we’re doing personally and what we need from each other. The simple act of asking “how are you?” or “what’s on your mind?” at the start of each meeting is surprisingly radical. It creates safety for us to express the fullness of our personality, our emotions, our bodily selves and the aspects of our lives that don’t disappear when we walk into a meeting room, no matter how much we like to pretend. It also helps to create a sense of belonging to each other and to our common purpose.

From shame to sharing

Working for social change is tough. It’s what the military term VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Our natural instinct is to avoid these conditions at all costs. Yet leading effectively in these circumstances means creating an inner certainty that can persist through ongoing ambiguity and fear. Support from our colleagues is essential to creating this sense of stability, but we also need to make sure we are not sabotaged by our own inner critic: the voice that reminds us we’re not good enough or clever enough, or we don’t know enough.

Our sense of shame can really hold us back – yet the only way to break free from our shame is to acknowledge and share it. As Brené Brown, a global expert on shame and vulnerability says,

“Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light”.

Doing so requires a high degree of sensitivity and self-awareness to understand how and when we get triggered by shame. It needs to be rooted in compassion and deep love for ourselves and others, accompanied by lack of judgement. Achieving this is often impossible without a guide, so at The Lab each of us seeks support to face our fears, whether seeing a psychologist, working with a mentor or attending self-development courses.

In admitting what we thought were weaknesses, we become more powerful. We can take on challenging work, free from the fear that others will “find out” our weaknesses. And perhaps most importantly for collaborative leaders, having liberated ourselves from our own fears, we are able to create a safe space for ourselves and others to understand where we feel small and ashamed.

Transforming the rules of the game

The work of The Lab requires us to acknowledge not just our personal fears, but also our uncertainties about the context we work in. Do we understand the forces that control and shape how our organisation works? Are these forces working for love or creating systemic violence against people and planet?

Our economic model is based on a belief that growth is the ultimate goal, that markets are the mechanism for the common good and that we should act in pursuit of our short-term self-interest. The disastrous consequences for our society and environment are clear to see. We must go beyond our own practices to question the forces that shape all organisations. We must advocate for systemic change.

This means getting educated. Do you understand the political and economic forces that shape your context? Who makes the rules of the game? Seek teachers – experts who have analysed these forces and are willing to share their knowledge – whether academics, think tanks, activists or quiet holders of wisdom.

It also means using your voice, in coalitions and other networks of influence. On their own, these organisations look like outliers, but together they have collective power. The Lab convenes a network of civil society, media, academics and businesses whose collective vision is to transform finance, and many other successful examples exist. Together, we are holding true to what sustainability really means – a transformation of our economy – rather than accepting business as usual and trying to shoehorn sustainability into this.

This blog is based on a talk given by Charlotte at the Leading Wellbeing International Research Festival, hosted by the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability.