Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Love and Leadership

How is being a leader like falling in love?

Something seems profane about that question. Leadership is about a sacred form of responsibility, while falling in love is about an equally sacred form of release. The idea of falling in love seems too mysterious, too emotional and too deeply personal to have a place in close proximity to the selfless work of leadership. But in other ways the two are perplexingly similar. As personal as it is to fall in love, it is also a selfless acceptance of another person. Though leadership is a deep responsibility, good leaders can motivate others to collaborate, overcome the barriers in their lives and feel an extatic sense of release. Love and leadership are both about empowerment, they are both about connection, they both involve work and they both create power. 

In this article I would like to cross-polinate some of the ideas that we use to think about romantic love with other ideas that we use to think about leadership. I will argue that love and leadership are not as disconnected as they might first appear. I believe that the skills we develop to find and keep love in our lives are deeply applicable to leading positive change in the world, and that the process of leading that positive change can be emotionally nourishing in many of the same ways as romance. 

Let's start by talking about energy. Think back to a time when you cared for someone who did not reciprocate, or to a time when you had an exciting idea that other people were uninterested in rallying around. Whether you're looking for love or looking to be a leader you're faced with the challenge of getting other people to invest energy in a relationship.

Energy means effort, it means focus, and relationships thrive on it. If you are in love with someone you may see them for only an hour, but you will spend an entire week putting energy into that hour. Similarly you can work with a team for forty hours a week, but it takes good relationships for that team to really invest energy in their work. We tend to invest energy in the things that bring us fulfillment, whether it's the simple sense of fulfillment that comes from eating food or the overhelming fullfillment that comes from overcoming oppression. The relationships that we find personally fulfilling are the ones that we tend to prioritize.

So how do you make a relationship fulfilling enough to be a high priority? It's not as simple as mapping out a plan for a fulfilling relationship on paper, giving a great sales pitch and then letting everything fall into place. Fullfillment is messy stuff. No one really understands what makes them fulfilled, and what we do understand we can't clearly communicate. As our lives change and our environment changes what we find fulfilling can change drastically, and our relationships need to be able to change with it.

The key to developing powerful, energy-rich relationships is iteration. Relationships need to constantly change and evolve in order to become powerful and stay powerful, and that change happens in three stages:

1. Investing Energy- This is what happens when couples support one another or campaign volunteers hand out yard signs. At the core of any relationship people invest energy in some process that makes them feel fulfilled. 

2. Communicating Emotion- This is what happens when couples say that they love one for one another or when a basketball team celebrates after a game. Now that everyone has invested energy in the relationship they need to take time to experience whatever the relationship created and express how they feel about that experience. 

3. Evolving Expectations- This is what happens when couples discuss where their relationship is going and teams sit down to strategize. Now that you know how everyone feels you can make a plan about how to invest more energy in the future. 

In powerful relationships these three steps happen constantly. You go on a date (energy) and at the end you say "that was fun (emotion) we should do it again sometime" (expectation). A group of friends builds an art project together (energy), then goes out afterward to celebrate (emotion) and starts planning the next project (expectation). 

In this way, love and leadership are not as different as they may first appear. Both are a way to use your time and energy creating powerful fulfillment in your life and the lives of others. Both provide deep feelings of love grounded in a process which improves the lives of everyone involved. Whether it happens across a nation or is confined to two individuals, the power to transform the world is inextricably linked to the feelings of love that come from that transformation.

I will end with an asexual story. One of the perks of being AVEN's founder is that I get to fly around the country giving talks at various universities. I'm usually invited to campus by the LGBT group, and I've noticed an interesting trend. Not surprisingly, the LGBT groups that invite me tend to be ones that have active asexual members. Of the 14 schools where I have spoken over the past two years, 7 have had out n' proud asexuals waiting in the audience.

Here's what is surprising: 6 of those 7 asexuals were club presidents. Think for a second about what that means. An asexual becoming president of an LGBT club is a little like a youtube video getting an oscar. When these people were freshman, their clubs probably weren't aware that asexuality existed, and probably had to struggle just to accept an asexual into their ranks. Yet whenever one of those asexuals is waiting to greet my plane I can be almost certain that she is running the show.

I can't help but wonder if this is, in part, because love and leadership are so fundamentally connected. Most of the people in an LGBT club split their energy between pursuing a primary partnership and building up their network of friends, but few asexuals on college campuses have that luxury. The best way for an asexual to fulfill her emotional needs is to build close-knit friendships, and the best way to do that is to work with her friends on something that all of them find personally empowering.

My point is not that asexual people are innately better leaders, merely that circumstances may have forced asexual people to tap into the link between love and leadership more deeply than most. See our need for love and fullfillment as deeply connected with our ability to positively impact the world around us can have an incredible effect on both. When we are desperate for love we make it by reshaping our world for ourselves and those around us. When we are desperate to reshape the world our skill in loving others guides us to a place of power, abundance and justice. 


Ily said...

Love and leadership seem disconnected? That's news to me! I think good leaders always do feel some kind of love for the cause they support and the folks they lead. And I guess there's different kinds of love, too. Like right now, I'm leading this volunteer program at Goodwill. It's kind of like an arranged marriage

That's really interesting about aces being LGBT club presidents. I don't think asexuals are innately better leaders either, but I think that people who are "different" might be. They're the ones motivated to change things. On most college campuses, being gay isn't weird anymore. So I think it's understandable that the ace members really have that fire. More power to them!

Sara Brooks said...

I keep meaning to write comments on your posts, and I'm sorry I haven't. I've been an AVENite for a few months now, and I've been identifying as asexual for longer than that (though, I didn't have a name for it back then).

I am a leader in the LGBT community in my area -- I work on marriage equality specifically -- and the love that I feel from my community is just as fulfilling for me as the love I might have from a relationship. It's incredible. It's inspiring. It makes me want to be a better person. And all of those romantic things that a relationship can be.

I wanted to say thank you, by the way, for being a leader of our community. I talk about you a lot, because you're kind of a hero to me. :) So, thanks for that.

Anonymous said...


You just made me reconsider how much I've felt betrayed by my pride group ignoring ase this year, and why I'm so thrilled to be on committee next year so I can change things...

I'm in love! :O

Cameron Sharpe said...

When dating, it should be your decision to meet or not to meet somebody. If you don't feel comfortable to meet somebody, it should be your decision. In traditional dating, you may feel a sense of pressure when someone asks you to meet a particular person. In online dating to take a decision on saying yes or no is very easy. Plus you can email back and forth until you do feel comfortable meeting that person. If they like you also, they will want you to feel comfortable. After all, if they have emailed you a number of times, they have invested time in