Discover more from The Curious Leader
How do you show the love?
What love's got to do with it
The other day a client asked me to define how I work with leaders.
“I show them the love.”
It’s true. And often why clients hire me. But it still feels bold to say it out loud.
Which is odd, because showing the love is a leadership superpower. One that’s powerfully enabling: it channels you to elevate everyone. And I love showing, feeling, and seeing others show the love. But it doesn’t get nearly the recognition or analysis it deserves.
Why is that? And why do I feel bold for owning it? Perhaps it feels safer to stick with Certified Leadership Credentials(TM). Or perhaps it’s another, related reason: showing the love is tricky to pin down. You know it when you feel it. But what does that mean? It is touchy-feely-yuck? (Let’s just get this out the way: no!) But also: wot?
Thanks for reading The Curious Leader! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
What is showing the love?
Showing the love isn’t something you do. It’s a feeling you communicate. But it’s hard to quantify a feeling. And even harder when it can be created differently by different people. But again: you know it when you feel it. Which is exactly what happened last week.
I was observing a workshop. My colleague was in the thick of it, delivering to a polite if wary crowd of senior execs. But as the session began to unfold I noticed their reticence give way to a kind of, well, exuberance:
Enthusiastic chipping in instead of waiting on (other) volunteers
Intense curiosity about where they aligned or diverged instead of just skimming the surface
Having an actual conversation instead of just saying answers3
Speaking honestly instead of keeping it safe
What was behind that shift? Right from the off, she showed them the love. She dialled into who she is: upbeat, irreverent, unafraid. She showed up with total clarity of intention: she wasn’t vague or hesitant. And, although showing the love isn’t without risk, she embraced that risk and leaned right in.
Let’s be clear: she also had great content, buckets of experience, and trusting sponsors. But the commitment from those leaders wasn’t just down to what she delivered. Or to buy-in from the big boss. It was a response to the feeling she created – by showing the love.
But how do you show the love?
Not necessarily like someone else. Which, again, makes it hard to quantify. Let’s dive into another example, this one with a very different vibe.
A mate of mine regularly tutors on a residential, application-only course. The tutors are experts, the attendees cock-a-hoop to be there, and unsurprisingly it’s all marvellous.4 Except last time, the final exercise flipped his group from triumph to freak out. A week of excited thinking, talking, doing then:
S I L E N C E.
He could have ignored their discomfort. Or rescued them. Instead, he showed the love. What did that look like? Enabling them, with all of his compassion and acuity, to get curious about their discomfort. What was its texture? Where might it have come from? Where might it take them?
The love was there in his choice to lean right into who he is: perceptive, compassionate, kind. It was in his clarity of intention, and the feeling of safety he communicated.5 It was there in his willingness to risk his own vulnerability. And because they felt the love, the group managed to swim with their discomfort and get home safely.
How and why they showed the love was different for my mate and my colleague. But I think they exercised similar muscles to help people feel it:
Leaning into who they are to create a personal connection even in a crowd6
Leading with clarity of intention instead of being vague or intermittent
Dialling themselves up to be a bit extra instead of doing extra
Meeting people where they are so they feel seen, not unsafe
Embracing the risk of showing the love, with no guarantee of the response7
What does it feel like?
Noticing how you feel the love can help you figure out how you show it. So here’s an example from a recipient of the love – me.
I was leading a precarious project. Think: widespread reluctance, endless provocation, dysfunctional everything. We weren’t burdened with problems so much as relentlessly bedraggled. And through it all, the client showed me the love. I couldn’t quantify it in the moment, but I absolutely, unmistakably felt it.
What did it feel like? Unstinting trust. Trust that we’d get there, trust in fast iteration, total trust in me – in who I am and everything I bring.8 How did they create that? By being themselves on full beam – not inadvertently but with clear intention. And they never wavered. They never ran from the risk. I knew where I was with them: safe.
So when they eventually asked me why I hadn’t run for the hills, my answer was instant:
You showed me the love.
It wasn’t nice, or kind or cheering. Showing me the love was powerfully enabling. I didn’t need someone to hold my hand. I needed someone to have my back while I rebuilt the ship, held off the storms9 and steered us to shore. And we got there. Verrrrry bruised, but with success in our sails. The power of love? I think so.10
Intrigued by the love? Feeling it, showing it, what is it? Let’s get curious with some impertinent questions. (Click here for an expanded, downloadable version.)
🤔 When have you felt the love?
How did you experience it? What did it enable in you? What did safety feel like?
🤔 Where do you notice the love?
Who elevates an interaction? What feelings are they channelling? How do people respond?
🤔 How do you show the love?
When do you make a difference by being, not doing? Which qualities do you dial up? What vibe are you creating?
Of course, you might show the love and… nothing. If so, don’t be downhearted. (But do get curious.11) Because whatever happens, showing the love sharpens your mettle. It exercises your muscle for risk. It clarifies who you are as a leader. It builds your confidence to show up with that clarity. Not hesitantly or inadvertently, but deliberately and courageously.
You can’t show the love indiscriminately. You’d be knackered. And probably too much. But also: there’s no need. So preserve it for moments that call for a different, deeper quality of connection. Like with those wary leaders, or that freaked out group, or me on that hazardous project. Because showing the love is special. It’s extra. It’s a hard-to-quantify superpower. What’s love got to do with it? Everything.12
With thanks to the very kind people who supplied feedback, examples and helped me wade through the mess!
There’s a difference between actively figuring out and passively saying.
Plus: every evening starts with sherry hour. What’s not to love?
You can’t just announce a “safe space”. You have to create it, not least by communicating a feeling of safety. Showing the love really helps, because it asks you to be clear in who you are – and to meet people where they are (bleugh, brilliant, wherever).
Which doesn’t mean taking up all the space. Or being an arse. (Personally, I like to save that for my family.)
Being not just you, but you on full beam, can be terrifying. But ultimately, there’s less friction in being who you are than who you’re not. It’s clearer. It builds trust faster because people know what to expect. It’s probably what people value in you anyway. And you get further because the effort of masking can be redirected somewhere more useful.
This was everything. I’ll never forget it.
Other ‘s’ words spring to mind.
I also think: thank God I only had a ship. They were wrangling an entire fleet.
It’s an excellent antidote. Refer back to your impertinent questions. What still sounds right? What doesn’t? How can you gather more evidence?