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All you need is love: Leading with love in challenging times

Written by: Debra Rutley
Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
8 min read

It is difficult to use the word ‘love’ without risking alienating those who will immediately perceive it as a ‘fluffy’ concept, and one that has no place in leadership discourse. Byrne-Jimenez and Yoon (2019) suggest that even writing about ‘love’ will make some people feel uncomfortable, so an important distinction needs to be drawn between ‘love that you see in the movies’ and ‘a courageous love that requires everything.’ Darder (1998, cited in Jimenez and Yoon, 2019) describes love as:

“rooted in a committed willingness to struggle persistently with purpose in our life and to intimately connect that purpose with what [Friere] called our ‘true vocation’ – to be human.”

And Byrne-Jimenez and Yoon (2019) surmise that ‘the search for love, therefore, is a search for our humanity’.    

Leading with love is not ‘fluffy’, and it is not easy. 500 years ago Niccolo Machiavelli observed that ‘it is much safer to be feared than loved’, and today, insights from psychology show that while we notice many traits in people, warmth and strength account for more than 90 per cent of the variance in the impressions we form of the people around us (Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger, 2013). Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger (2013) observe that most leaders emphasise their ‘strength, competence and credentials’ in the workplace but their research found that this is the wrong approach: ‘Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviours.’ Research suggests that it is actually warmth that creates effective leadership, and acts as the ‘conduit of influence’, facilitating trust and the communication and absorption of ideas, and it is through very simple non-verbal signals that this can begin to be created: a nod, a smile, an open gesture that shows a colleague you are pleased to be in their company and are attentive of their concerns (Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger, 2013). In this way, leaders are able to show they are present, that they notice their colleagues and that they care.

Many educators today have a heightened awareness of the need for social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practice and this is particularly relevant for those of us working in Alternative Provision (AP). As leaders, it is essential that we have a deep understanding not only of how long term and ongoing exposure to poverty, discrimination, insecure housing, hunger, violence and criminalisation affects our young people, but also the ‘secondary trauma’ that those working with young people facing these challenges may experience. Also referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’ or ‘vicarious trauma’, the research on these conditions is well understood in many ‘helping’ professions, but it is less well understood in relation to how it affects educators (Lander, 2018). Secondary trauma can affect teachers’ happiness, health and professional practice, so it is essential for schools and school leaders to notice, acknowledge and address it head on. Leading with love is one such way to address it, because even the simple act of ‘noticing’ colleagues is a step in the right direction:

“School leaders should consider ways to appreciate staff both publicly and privately – not just by recognizing great work, but also by acknowledging that the work is difficult.”

(Lander, 2018)

In their framework for ‘leadership as an act of love’ Byren-Jiminez and Yoon (2019) confront these issues with the challenge that ‘modern leadership requires a new way of addressing the needs of children and adults. This is not to say that leaders need to do more, but rather they need to do better. One element of that is to reclaim love as both a leadership strategy and a leadership framework.’

How might this work in practice?

To ‘lead with love’ is to be deliberate and intentional in one’s planning and interactions. It is not a leadership ‘style’ or a ‘trait’ that either comes naturally to you or does not. Instead, it is a conscious set of decisions about how you will ‘be’, how you will ‘lead’ and how you respond to others. To lead with love, you need to understand the way that your body and mind responds automatically to certain situations so that you can interrupt that cycle, take a step back and ask yourself: how do I want to be in this moment? In particular, it is helpful to have an understanding of the ‘two-system brain’ and the ‘discover-defend axis’ (Webb, 2016).

The two-system brain

At Aspire Alternative Provision Multi Academy Trust in Buckinghamshire, we have been working closely with Steve Peters’ ‘chimp management model’, which is described in The Chimp Paradox (2011). This model uses the metaphor of the human brain and the chimp brain to explain the brain’s dual thinking systems: one deliberate and controlled (the human), and the other automatic and instinctive (the chimp).The ‘chimp’ system is in use when we act impulsively and respond emotionally, without considering the consequences of our actions, whereas the ‘human’ system enables us to rationalise and act with compassion.

By understanding the two-system brain we can be more intentional in our interactions with students. At Aspire we have three ‘red thread’ questions that we ask staff to consider whenever they need to make quick decisions in times of heightened tension:

  • What is in the best interest of the child?
  • How can we make that happen?
  • How would I feel if this was my child?

Starting each day by setting out intentions and giving ourselves time to work out our real priorities can also be helpful for activating the ‘human’ part of our brain (Webb, 2016), as our automatic system (the chimp) prioritises whatever seems most worthy of our attention, while filtering out things that don’t seem important. To encourage intentional thinking throughout the day, you could try asking yourself:

  • How do I want to be today?
  • How do I want people to respond to me today?
  • What is the best way to approach this task?
  • Who else do I need to speak to in order to achieve X?
  • What will happen if I don’t prioritise this call with a parent?
  • That student will feel anxious today because of X, how can I make them feel safe and loved?

The other daily intentional practice we have at Aspire is ‘blessings’, based on the positive psychological approach of Martin Seligman (see, for example, Seligman, 2012). At the end of each day, the staff at each of our PRUs have a debrief to discuss the challenges and issues of the day. Due to the nature of the environment, these briefings previously risked becoming very negative and emotionally charged as staff shared their difficult experiences of students, reinforcing preconceptions and making the policy of every day being a ‘fresh start’ even more challenging to live up to in practice. So, we flipped the meeting and instead we now start by sharing our ‘blessings’: which students were our blessings today? This reframes the debrief in a positive way, helping us to celebrate the progress our students are making (however small), and reminds us that we are all making a difference and having a positive impact on young people’s lives.

The discover-defend axis

Our brains are wired to be on the lookout for threats to defend against and rewards to discover. When we feel threatened, we find it difficult to think broadly – while our ancestors may have benefitted from an instantaneous ‘fight, flight or freeze’ decision, most of our threats today require a more thoughtful approach. In contrast to this, when we are in discovery mode, we can be thoughtful and flexible in our approach (Webb, 2016). This is the best mindset for development and learning.

By understanding this axis as leaders, we can appreciate how to support and challenge colleagues more effectively. Lesson observations and performance management that is only speaking to the ‘defend’ range of the axis will not allow us to create relationships with staff where there is genuine growth and positive challenge. If we are to lead with love, we must consciously create environments where staff can operate in the discover mode and be enabled to flourish through taking risks and learning from mistakes. To lead with love means allowing people to fail, and supporting them in learning from that experience and using it for growth. This is often at odds with the system in which we find ourselves in education.

When we are operating in the discover mode, we are also more open to ‘noticing’ our students and colleagues. To lead with love is to dedicate time to noticing the small things that people say, or do, or changes to how they feel or look and acknowledging these things. Staying open and curious generates an environment where people feel heard, seen and truly cared about (Bonnevalle, 2018). Consider this question: In the busy flurry of the school day how often do you give yourself time to simply notice other people?

Conscious and deliberate communication is another element of leading with love that speaks to the discover-defend axis. Time constraints often lead to meetings being very focused and emails being very abrupt. Consider how often someone else’s communication has ever shifted you directly into defend mode. As leaders we have a responsibility to be deliberate in the ways in which we communicate:

  • How will X feel when she receives this email?
  • How do I want X to respond to me in this meeting?
  • This has gone wrong. How can I make it right? What will happen if the team end up in defence mode?
  • We need to solve this problem creatively. How can I get everyone into discover mode?

Conclusion: planning to lead with love

Leading with love is not something that happens without conscious and deliberate planning. As a leader this can be done in terms of the self (see intention setting, above) and in terms of the school. At Aspire we do this through intentionally building opportunities for love into the school day (ie. through blessings) and also into the curriculum through the principle that relationships are a learning goal in their own right.

“Too often relationships can be the by-product of decisions taken with other priorities in mind. They’re often neglected, undermined or put under intolerable pressure.”

Relational Schools (n.d.)

To lead with love is to prioritise what it is to be human, and the opportunity to build and nurture high-quality and meaningful relationships is at the very heart of that. However, we cannot leave the formation of them to chance, and we must provide staff and students with the time and space they need to develop and nurture these relationships. We need to embrace the messiness and vulnerability of what it means to be human and this takes courage. It is not a fluffy concept, but a deliberate effort to think consciously about all that you do, and the impact that you have on other people.

References

Bonnevalle N (2018) Leading with love: Three ways great leaders show love in the workplace. Available at: thnk.org/blog/leading-with-love/ (accessed 10 February 2020).

Byrne-Jimenez MC, Yoon IH (2019) Leadership as an act of love: Leading in dangerous times. Frontiers in Education Journal. doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2018.00117

Cuddy AJC, Kohut M, Neffinger J (2013) Connect, then lead. Harvard Business Review, July-August 2013. Available at: hbr.org/2013/07/connect-then-lead (accessed 2 April 2020).

Lander J (2018) Helping Teachers Manage the Weight of Trauma. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Available at: gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/09/helping-teachers-manage-weight-trauma (accessed 10 February 2020)

Peters S (2011) The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme for Confidence, Success and Happiness. London: Ebury

Relational Schools (n.d.) Research – what we do. Available at: relationalschools.org/research/ (accessed 10 February 2020).

Seligman M (2012) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Webb C (2016) How to Have a Good Day. London: Macmillan

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