A few days ago, I was listening to a Higher Purpose podcast where the host, Kevin Monroe, asked his guest Jeff Harmon, a leadership coach and author of The Anatomy of a Principled Leader, about the challenges of using the word "love" in the leadership and workplace sense.

Now before you get an allergic reaction to the word "love" in this sense, Harmon masterfully juxtaposes our often-misconstrued interpretation of love as a "soft" management approach to the actual management approach of one of the toughest and most revered sports icons of all time --  the legendary head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi. Here's what coach Lombardi once boldly stated:

I don't necessarily have to like my players and associates but as their leader I must love them. Love is loyalty, love is teamwork, love respects the dignity of the individual. This is the strength of any organization. [emphasis mine]

Keep in mind, this is the same hard-driving Vince Lombardi who also made famous the statement: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."

That's why his love quote is even more profound when you think about it. As Harmon pointed out, we often view any notion of leadership and love through the spiritual teachings of historical and religious figures like Ghandi or Jesus of Nazareth.

Perhaps long overdue, the no-nonsense Vince Lombardi slaps us upside the head with a sober understanding of love and leadership even more applicable for the workplace today. Surprisingly for his generation, it was this approach to coaching his players that brought the Packers total dominance in the 1960s, when they conquered five World Championships over a seven-year period (including the first two Super Bowl wins).

Defining the Lombardi love in today's terms

Harmon says that demonstrating love is how Lombardi showed up with his actions. It wasn't merely a feeling; it's how he went about his business coaching players in one of the most violent sports in America. 

To  dispel any further doubt and clear any confusion, Harmon consults the Greek language. As most of us remember from school, there are four types of love: eros, philia, storge, and agape. Yet only one truly counts for effective leadership in the 21st century -- the kind that coach Lombardi showed. Guess which?

Unlike eros (the romantic love that inappropriately shows up in the workplace and makes HR nervous), philia (the quid pro quo love of "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine"), and storge (the familial love for parents, siblings or your children), agape love is your winner and what defines great leaders. It's the type of selfless "I got your back" love, says Harmon, that demonstrates commitment, loyalty, respect, care, and high regard for others. Ever worked for such a leader?

It's the kind of love expressed as an "action verb" that declares, "I value you as an employee and human being and will do everything I can to set you up for success so we can all thrive together as a team and organization." This is how Lombardi showed up with his players. This is how the best leaders show up with their employees today.

Thought-leaders agree: Love works, plain and simple. 

In this social economy driven by transparent Millennials, we're creating more leaders unafraid of expressing love -- calling it for what it is in the context of providing great leadership. And thought leaders agree.

Ken Blanchard: The author of The One Minute Manager and countless other best-selling books on management and leadership said "Servant Leadership is love in action."

Jeff Weiner: The CEO of LinkedIn advocates for love through "compassionate management." In this instructional video on the topic, he says, "I need to put myself in the shoes of the people that I'm working with. I need to see the world through their lens and their perspective. I need to coach them where I can coach them. I need to play to their strengths. I need to understand what it is that they're trying to accomplish."

Kevin Cashman: The Global Leader in CEO & Executive Development at Korn Ferry, and author of one of the best leadership books of all time, Leadership from the Inside Out, said this in Forbes: "As leaders we don't appreciate enough much less care or love enough.  We likely have an infinite capacity for loving, yet we're reticent about spending it despite the fact that this "L" word or whatever word you want to use in its place is the substance that unifies teams, builds collaborative cultures, fosters meaningful commitment, and bonds people to an organization."

Jack Ma: On the key to success, the billionaire founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba said this in a World Economic forum interview:  "To gain success a person will need high EQ; if you don't want to lose quickly you will need a high IQ, and if you want to be respected you need high LQ -- the IQ of love."

Joel Manby: The CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment literally wrote the book on it --Love Works. A former "Undercover Boss" from the CBS reality TV show of the same name, Manby outlines love as a business philosophy into seven principles that won't compromise results, profits, and excellence. They are:

  1. Be patient -- demonstrate self-control in difficult situations.
  2. Be kind -- show encouragement and enthusiasm.
  3. Be trusting -- place confidence in those around you.
  4. Be unselfish -- think of yourself less.
  5. Be truthful -- define reality corporately and individually.
  6. Be forgiving -- release the grip of the grudge.
  7. Be dedicated -- stick to your values in all circumstances.

John Hope Bryant: The founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Operation HOPE, Inc. is the author of three books, including Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World. In this groundbreaking book, Bryant outlines five laws of love-based leadership:

  1. Loss Creates Leaders (there can be no strength without legitimate suffering).
  2. Fear Fails (only respect and love leads to success).
  3. Love Makes Money (love is at the core of true wealth).
  4. Vulnerability is Power (when you open up to people they open up to you).
  5. Giving is Getting (the more you offer to others, the more they will give back to you).

Final thoughts

Is it time more companies embrace love as a leadership strategy to leverage business outcomes? Perhaps so, but this will require a monumental shift in our thinking from the faulty perception that love is too squishy and not fit for a professional setting.

To drive my final point home on love as a leadership strategy, I point to the work of Barbara Fredrickson, University of North Carolina psychology professor and author of Love 2.0.

She conducted an extensive study on human emotions with profound results. In this Fast Company article, she was asked if a person's engagement at work is established and fueled by feelings of love. Here's Fredrickson:

"When people are made to feel cared for, nurtured, and growing, that will serve the organization well. Because those feelings drive commitment and loyalty just like it would in any relationship. If you feel uniquely seen, understood, valued and appreciated, then that will hook you into being committed to that team, leader and organization. This is how positive emotions work."

This is also the way many of coach Lombardi's players described having felt under his leadership, even decades after his death. If it worked for hulking 285-pound linemen in the gridiron, it may just work for your own team members and fellow colleagues.