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  • Writer's pictureMike Ayers

Loving Leadership: Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?

This past week I sat with two groups of executive leaders in a large organization asking them about the culture of their workplace. I heard responses such as “like a family”, “great collaboration”, “mutual respect”, and “we care about each other”. One said, “It’s truly a blessing to get up in the morning and look forward to coming to work.” Another man, who was contently working elsewhere in the organization, was recently asked to join this executive leadership group. He said, “The only reason I left what I was doing was to work with this group of people.”

Here were people who were experiencing in their jobs a relational vitality that brought great satisfaction to their work experience— one that can also provide similar benefits to any organization who intentionally focuses on this dynamic.

The Evidence

The soft dimension of people and relationships in the workplace is often not discussed, seldom a focus of training, and rarely a subject of empirical study in leadership. Yet, year after year, satisfaction surveys reveal that individuals who enjoy the people they work with have greater personal fulfillment, greater commitment to their work, a sense of higher self-efficacy, and are more productive.(1)

There is more evidence to suggest the value of relational connections and even “love” in leadership, management, and organizational effectiveness. Mitroff and Denton, in their ninety interviews with high-level managers and executives, found that “terms such as love, respect, trust, and wisdom are used freely and the concepts they represent are readily accepted.”(2) Waitely, speaking of success in a knowledge-based world, sees relationship as the subject that underlies all themes in leadership: “Leaders respond to the needs of others. Most leaders used to demand respect for themselves; the new leader cares much more about creating opportunities for people to respect themselves.”(3) In Kouzes and Posner’s seminal work, they claim that good leaders show compassion to followers.(4) DePree includes love among the attributes of effective leaders.(5) Steven Covey, in his groundbreaking book on leader effectiveness, speaks of the need for unconditional love within the hearts of all who seek to influence:

In other words, when we truly love others without condition, without strings, we help them feel secure, safe, validated, and affirmed in their essential worth, identity, and integrity. Their natural growth process is encouraged. We make it easier for them to live the laws of life—cooperation, contribution, self-discipline, integrity—and to discover and live true to the highest and best within them. (6)

James A. Autry in his book Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership provides real-life stories of the power of love at work in organizations. In one example, he speaks of a leader at a Fortune 500 company who chooses love toward his employees by meeting their needs at special, critical moments in life:

I’ve made exceptions to corporate rules to help get an employee’s family through the nightmare of overwhelming financial and emotional distress. I’ve made similar exceptions for employees needing assistance to recover from substance abuse . . . In every office you hear the threads of love and joy and fear and guilt, the cries for celebration and reassurance, and somehow you know that connecting those threads is what you are supposed to do and business will take care of itself. (7)

Leaders Set the Pace

Leaders can model how their people can experience nurture and care while at the same time getting business done. If by love we mean (as the term is defined): “strong affection and concern that places supreme value upon what is loved”, it seems obvious that such a high quality should be aspired to in the workplace. Competent leaders who also possess the capacity to love others (i.e., to know, serve and celebrate others) are those who are trusted and followed (see research on “Transformational Leadership”).

Love in Leadership Works

Many companies have vibrant relational cultures and also experience tremendous business success. There are many leaders (as cited above) who value relational connections, care and concern for others, and love in the heart of leadership who also possess the conviction that it is not mutually exclusive to profits. They explode the myth that “nice guys finish last,” and in fact, they would advocate that creative, caring leadership has the power to produce many benefits for organizations when exercised properly. By the way- the organization I met with recently? They’re experiencing tremendous growth!

Many leaders would also say that this kind of loving leadership is personally gratifying, as it becomes an extension of the leader’s self, allowing him or her to consistently exist in the world for its betterment. It allows the leader to sleep a little easier at night by questioning the assumption that one must sacrifice integrity and peace of mind in favor of organizational success. In the end, it will be the goodness and kindness you showed to people, the sharing of empowerment and opportunity, and using your position beyond yourself for the betterment of others, that will be most gratifying.

However, though love in leadership works, it is not primarily a tool for your company’s success. That’s inauthentic by nature and people will read right through those types of insincere leader motivations. We don’t love and respect others for the sake of profits. Any success garnered from relational connections at work is simply a wonderful by-product. Love in leadership is its own reward.


(1) Gallardo, Rodrigo Yañez; Carmona, Mallén Arenas e Novales, Miguel Ripoll. “The impact of interpersonal relationships on the general job satisfaction.” Liberabit [online]. 2010, vol.16, n.2, pp. 193-202. ISSN 1729-4827.

(2) Ian I. Mitroff and Elizabeth A. Denton, A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A Hard Look at Spirituality, Religion, and Values in the Workplace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999. 155.

(3) Denis Waitley, Empires of the Mind: Lessons to Lead and Succeed in a Knowledge-Based World. New York: Morrow, 1994. 161.

(4) James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 3rd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002. 375–376.

(5) Max DePree, Attributes of Leaders. Executive Excellence, 1997. 14(4), 8.

(6) Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990. 199.

(7) James A. Autrey, Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership. New York: Avon Books, 1992. 30–32.


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