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  • Writer's picturejimrettew

Put the Love Back in Leadership

On my last day as interim executive director of Slide Ranch, my team threw me a heartfelt going-away party. I was touched and moved by their outpouring of love, and the feeling was very much mutual. I cared deeply about their wellbeing, not only as employees but as individuals. I sat wondering, “What did we all do right, because I want to make sure I can do it again.”

It wasn’t always like that. In my 20’s and 30’s, I embodied the mold of the strong, assertive leader. A true leader leads from the front. He gives directives that others follow. He’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s got to be the ultimate Mr. Fix-It.

Looking back, Mr. Fix-It just puts a target on my back. Mr. Fix-It makes other people feel stupid or fearful, and neither of those is good. Always leading from the front prevents others from shining too.

Instead, I discovered another leadership model that puts love at the center. It’s not as clear cut as leading from behind or leading from the front. It’s about leading with your heart and humanity.

I’ve tried to codify what I do and how I do it, and the best I can come up with is ‘Love and Leadership.’ I didn’t coin this phrase, but I think it fits. 

So what does this look like at work? It’s lots of little things on a daily basis. This is going to read like a prescription, but it can’t be done that way. It must come from the heart, but here are some examples.

  • KNOW: I get to know them as individuals. They’re three-dimensional people, not replaceable cogs. We play together. We break bread together. I know when their kids are pitching in little league games, and I give them the flexibility to attend these life events. This is a two-way street. I also need to show them my own vulnerabilities. The old adage is true: people don’t care what you know unless they know that you care.

  • INPUT: I take their input and act on it. They see this and appreciate it.  When my team wanted to work on social justice issues, we devoted staff time to understanding their perspective, gathering their input, and acting on it as an organization. Staff feels seen, heard, respected, and influential.

  • OPEN: I’m open, honest, and transparent with them. When I learned of tight budget numbers, I don’t try to hide it from them like children who need to be protected. I let them know, and in fact, try to make them part of the solution.

  • FIGHT: I fight for them. When staff were underpaid, I fought for raises. When there were some break-ins onsite, I fought for more police patrols and security cameras. My team knows I have their back.

  • STEP UP: When a crisis hits, I show up in full-force. When one of our employees got rushed to the hospital on the weekend, I was there too. I couldn’t do anything to make her well, but she knew we were there for her in the waiting room.

  • EQUALS: In our kitchen, we have a game where if you leave your dishes out and someone catches you, you get ‘snake-bitten’, meaning you have to wash all the unclaimed dishes in the sink. A member on my team was going to snake-bite me but was told by others not to because I was the Executive Director. “No way!” I said. “I’m not above this. I don’t get special privileges.” I’m one of the team, and this applies to all.

  • HONOR: I honor their service. When employees leave, we have a goodbye dinner honoring their service. I praise in public, praise in private, and take great joy in seeing them shine.

My litmus test – do my actions build trust or take it away? That simple guide will tell you if you’re on the right side of the ‘love and leadership’ model.

The biggest gift someone can give is their love, and the second biggest is their labor. Combined, these two are a powerful force that turn teammates into superstars and individuals into life-fulfilled souls.


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