A Leadership Story for Valentine’s Day

On this day that’s devoted to celebrating love, we examine the relationship between love and leadership. In doing so, we begin with a story…

Once upon a time (not too long ago) in a land not too far away, there lived a man who wanted to rule his country. This man was loud, arrogant and abrasive and was perfectly comfortable insulting and threatening physical violence against both detractors and any followers who dared to challenge or question him. This leader routinely touted his superior intellect – in fact, he professed himself to be superior in all things. His supporters described him as strong… as a good leader.

In that same land and around that same time, there was another man who also wanted to lead. His philosophy was, however, quite different. His tone was fervent but understated. He professed love for the people he sought to lead. He saw his primary responsibility as bringing people together – rather than fostering divisions – and helping them to maximize their potential. In seeking the position of leadership, he spoke of service rather than power and authority. His opponents and critics dubbed him weak, while his supporters described him as decent, capable, honourable and caring – a statesman.

Have you heard of this country and of these men? Do you know how the story ends? Truth be told, this story plays out across the globe and with differing outcomes.

The debate has raged for centuries on what constitutes a great leader. On this day when we celebrate love, let’s examine the role of love in two common leadership styles.

Machiavellian Approach to Leadership

While some argue that Machiavelli’s intent in penning The Prince has been misinterpreted, since its publication in the early 16th century, it has become known as a blueprint for tyrants. In fact, the author’s name is now synonymous with a style of leadership characterized by a predisposition to manipulate others in order to accomplish their own goals. Such leaders have little trust in people and in turn, tend not to be trusted by others. 

In actuality, when exploring the issue of whether it was more desirable for a leader to be feared or loved, Machiavelli asserted that it is desirable to be both. However, he went on to point out that, as this is difficult to achieve, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved.  


“For friendships that are won by rewards – and not by greatness and nobility – cannot be depended upon in times of adversity. Men have less hesitation in offending one who makes himself loved than one who is feared. For love holds through a bond of obligation, which can be broken whenever it is in the interests of the obliged party. But fear holds by the apprehension of punishment, which is something that never leaves men.”  [The Prince]

The Psychology of Love in Leadership

In contrast to the preceding model, this approach to leadership posits that the secret to leadership effectiveness is to lead with love. In this context, there are said to be three loves every great leader must have: Love for the Mission, Love for the People and Love for Character.[1]  

When our leaders – whether in business, politics or religion – allow their love of money or self or power/status to eclipse their love of the Mission, then abuse becomes inevitable.

When leaders see the people as a means to an end rather than the beneficiaries and the focus of their leadership, again abuse is the likely outcome. In fact, it has been posited that the most common failing of potentially great leaders is their abuse of people.

We see such abuse manifested when leaders place the interests of a subset of the people above that of the greater good. In politics, this translates into special privileges being extended to the party faithful at the expense of the wider citizenry. In the corporate environment, such leaders may exploit workers in a quest to provide higher and higher returns for investors.

History – and indeed the present – is replete with stories of leaders who have been undone by character flaws. Whether it be greed, infidelity, dishonesty, arrogance or any combination thereof, a leader who is unable or unwilling to exercise self-restraint will invariably account for his own demise.

Closing Thoughts

So this Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to reflect on leadership. This applies whether you are a leader yourself or your are someone who is examining the calibre of those who lead you at work or in politics or in any other social or institutional setting.

The question to be asked and answered is “From your perspective, what – if anything – does love have to do with leadership?”

[1] https://www.modernservantleader.com/servant-leadership/3-loves-of-great-leadership/#:~:text=There%20are%20three%20loves%20every,the%20foundation%20for%20great%20leadership.

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