Melinda Gates' new book The Moment of Lift is out this week, which means the Microsoft exec turned philanthropist is doing the media rounds to promote it. The result is a whole lot of interesting insights about the massive positive economic impact of empowering women. But she's also dropped a few gems about her personal life and beliefs here and there too.

For instance, in a lengthy conversation with Business Insider, Gates shares how she, her famous spouse, and their kids still do the dishes together each night and explains how seeing Bill Gates drop off his kids at school inspired more dads to take do the school run.

But even more surprising than the image of the CEO of Microsoft elbow deep in a sink of sudsy dishes is Gates' comments on what it takes to be a great leader. Forget the usual prescriptions for vision or charisma, according to Gates the most important traits for a leader to have sound less like something you'd hear in a boardroom and more like something out of a self-help book.

All you need is.... love?

Gates explains to BI's Alyson Shontell that when she first got to Microsoft the culture was very macho and aggressive. "I actually questioned for a while, 'Do I want to stay here?'" Gates confesses. But despite her initial qualms, she went on to a successful career at the company, eventually leading a team of more than 1,000.

How did she come to term with the competitive culture? In short, by leaning into her own leadership style and changing it, at least in her orbit. "I finally decided, instead of leaving, which was my plan, that I would just be myself and see if I could still be successful. And I ended up attracting all kinds of people from all over the company," she says.

The essence of that style, which she now recommends to other leaders, boils down to two surprising words: empathy and love.

"I believe in being compassionate to everybody around you. Whether you talk about love explicitly or not, I think it's what you do to role model. So when you have the employee who has a death in their family or has a loved one who's ill or a young child they're caring for, I think it's in how you respond to them as a manager or in reverse that shows your humanity," she explains.

Love isn't just about being nice. It's also about being an effective leader. Because when you show empathy and kindness it allows employees to trust you and be vulnerable. And that's what drives breakthrough ideas and beyond-the-call-of-duty performance.

"The best organizations are ones where people can show up as their full selves at home and at work, and that they don't have to hide parts of themselves," Gates says. "The more we let everybody be themselves, the more we will have empathic leadership. And to me that ultimately is when you reach out and connect with somebody over their humanity that ultimately is love, whether you name it or not."

Hard data on the importance of love? It exists.

Which sounds nice, but maybe some more hard-nosed readers are rolling their eyes. Does love, important as it may be in life, really have a role in a results-focused business environment? If you're the kind who need hard evidence to convince you of anything, then look no further than data-obsessed Google.

As my Inc.com colleague Justin Bariso has explained, to figure out what sets super effective teams apart from low performing ones, the search giant poured over decades of academic research, as well as data on more than 100 teams for over a year. The conclusion was simple: "psychological safety" matters more than anything else for teams to function at their best.

"In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea," is Google's definition of the term.

What's another word for offering kindness and support to a fellow human being on a basis of mutual trust? Outside the conference room we call that love. Maybe Melinda Gates is on to something.    

(As a postscript, since her time there, Microsoft has engaged in a whole program to shift the culture away from competitiveness and towards kindness. It seems they've come to share her belief that you you can't be a great leader without love.)  

Published on: Apr 24, 2019
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