A colleague in a previous company called me up to tell me his old boss is trying to lure him back to his old position. In a crystal-clear moment of clarity, he told me he could never return to that environment, no matter how attractive the offer.

As he explained it, it wasn't his boss. It was a toxic executive up in the ivory tower who made life a living hell for everyone else through fear and disrespect. My friend was clearly taking the higher road.

It reminds me of another toxic boss, someone I reported to a few years back. His low emotional intelligence and Grand Canyon-size ego manifested in bullying and controlling behaviors that sent some of his best people packing. In exit interview data of the top five reasons people quit, he was "reason No. 5." 

Not exactly the type of executive boss who will win over your trust. Neither are bosses who wield power and control over their people as a way of driving performance and achieving results.

Fear is out

Top-down bosses who spread fear are notorious for killing intrinsic motivation. And when that happens, good-employees-turned-order-takers stop exercising the very traits employers wish to see in their people--that of being proactive, creative, and motivated self-starters.

When fear permeates the air in command-and-control dictatorships, employees don't take risks, use their full brain capacity, and perform at their best. When they aren't empowered to make decisions on their own and give input and have a voice, when they don't grow as people in work that has meaning and purpose, they eventually suffocate and lose the will to contribute meaningfully. Exit, stage left.

Love is in

To borrow a line from the important work of a colleague of mine, Reneé? Smith, founder of A Human Workplace and director of workplace transformation at Results Washington: "It's time to decrease fear and increase love at work," as she boldly declares.

She is one of the many rising thought leaders, authors, consultants, and executives who share, along with yours truly, the same philosophy for culture change and leadership development. Smith writes on the Human Workplace website,

When we feel loved, cared for, and respected, we settle in. We feel safe, committed, and at ease to be ourselves. And then we humans do incredible things ...

We serve, we invent, we collaborate. We solve, we contribute, we improve. 

We all fundamentally want to know what we are doing matters. Building a loving, human-centered workplace creates the conditions to give and be and do our very best.

Regardless of what generation you identify with, every employee with a pulse wants to be treated like a valued and respected human being with the freedom and safety to use her God-given brain. To that end, every human being wants to "feel loved" at work.

Don't for a minute think of love in the squishy romantic sense or as a "nice guy" doormat leadership style that has no lasting business impact. We're talking about actionable love -- the kind of daring, practical love that the best leaders demonstrate daily to achieve great things. This new paradigm requires a behavioral shift in how most managers think and operate today.   

Three key ways to show "practical love" as a leader

Because leadership is an esteemed and privileged role, not every person is fit for the high bar of "leading with love." I posit that, if you choose this noble path, you -- and every leader -- will require the capacity to display these three qualities.

1. Practical love means trusting and believing in the people you lead.

Stephen M.R. Covey in his book The Speed of Trust says that a team with high trust will produce results faster and at lower cost. But should you first earn the trust of your people? Or does trust develop from having a belief in your people first -- their strengths, abilities, and commitment? In other words, which of these two statements would you agree with?

A. Trust is something that people must earn.

B. Trust is something that should be given as a gift.

If you chose A, you're in the majority. Conventional thinking says that people have to earn trust first, and if they violate that trust, it becomes difficult to earn it back, right? But if you selected B, you're a loving leader. In high-performing organizations, leaders are willing to give trust to their followers first, and they give it as a gift even before it's earned. This is practical love.

2. Practical love puts your humility on full display as a top leadership strength.

There's a false notion out there that says humility is weak. In fact, dictionaries often define humility as low self-esteem, self-degradation, and meekness. Yet this core virtue drives against the inner strongholds that make a bad leader: narcissism, self-centeredness, judgmentalness, control, and impulsiveness.

As reported in The Washington Post, studies indicate that people low in humility overreact during conflicts, strike out when angered, and plot their revenge. They also refuse to apologize or accept responsibility if they're the culprit and, instead, blame their victims.

"The humble, on the other hand, are more pro-social. They build connections. They're more helpful, tolerant, sensitive, and accepting of differences," according to the Post. This is practical love.

3. Practical love is being able to actively listen to the needs of others.

Effective communication isn't just about talking; it is also the ability to listen and understand what's happening on the other side of the fence. You listen for meaning and understanding with the other person's needs in mind. 

Leaders also benefit from this approach to listening because the more receptive you are to helping your team members, the more you make the company a safe place for them to be open enough to give you great input, great ideas, and great contributions.

If you sense that a top performer isn't happy and at-risk for leaving your company, address the issues right away with a "stay interview."

As opposed to the outdated "exit interview" (which defeats the purpose since the employees have already made up their minds to leave!), the stay interview builds trust with employees, who feel valued because leaders are sending the message that they see them as important and want to get a feel for what's working and not working for them. And then doing something about it.

Here are five "must asks" to ensure winning back unhappy employees who are key to your operation's success.

1. "What do you like about your job?"

2. "Could you describe a good day of work you had recently?"

3. "Do you feel your skills are being utilized to the fullest?"

4. "Do you feel you get properly recognized for doing good work?"

5. "Do you feel that you are treated with respect?"

When you compassionately listen to the answers to these questions and remove obstacles from people's paths, you have demonstrated practical love in action.