Co-authored by Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald, staff writer at Round Table Companies.
Last week I was talking to a close friend and colleague, Erik Harrington, about leadership — how he encourages his team toward growth, how he shows up and is present for every patient that sits in the dentist chair, how he saves energy to serve as a father and husband at home. By the end, what we were actually talking about was love. Could they be interrelated? Can you lead with love? He brought me back to the moment that connected the two for him:
First of all, do you remember Field Day at the end of the school year? It was a day filled with water balloon tosses, potato sacks, relay races; the sticky aftermath of red and orange Popsicle mustaches and cotton candy claws. It was the day that the athletically advanced could gain bragging rights, and somehow, the same kids always came out on top. The tallest, broadest, most popular kids really shined on Field Day. The most coordinated kid won the tosses, the fastest won the race. Let’s call him David.
Erik remembers being 10 at his elementary school’s Field Day, rounding the final curve of the race with about 50 yards to go, slated about 10 yards behind David. For those that have never participated in a running competition, these final moments of the race are best defined as pure agony: your legs are heavy as cement, your arms went numb thirty seconds ago, and your lungs, well, they’re sucking hard to bring in air through a passage that feels like the width of a pencil point. On this final stretch, Erik saw his opponent ahead of him. He thought, it’s probably best to just take second, that feels safe, that feels right. He’d been there before, and he could settle for that again.
Then another voice crept across his consciousness, perhaps because of a lack of oxygen. It whispered, you have more in the tank than you think you do. You can give more than you think you can. You can give everything you’ve got. With the proper mix of true grit, wild abandon, trust, and motivation, Erik found what it meant to break away from physical and mental limitations, and to give something everything. He won by one foot because he put one foot further than he thought he could.
Erik doesn’t know where David is today in his life, or how that race may have changed David’s path, maybe it didn’t change him at all. But for Erik, the compass was recalibrated. He started listening and trusting that other voice, the one inclined to put in everything he had, and the choice has brought him to some interesting conclusions. Firstly, he’s found that it doesn’t always mean winning; sometimes you give something everything, and you still end up second, you still lose the girl, you relapse, you’re laid off. But most importantly, if you go into the race with a little more faith in your potential, a little more love for yourself, a little more love for the ones cheering for you, the investment will be worth your while. Your guts to take this path will leave an impact.
Loving and leading this way is a risk, no doubt about it. It’s a risk for your personal relationships, it’s a risk for your professional reputation, it’s a risk for your self-esteem. It’s not comfortable. Instead, it’s about finding what level of discomfort are we comfortable with. Going down the road to loving a lot means that you’re more invested, more exposed to getting hurt. But what’s the alternative? To not love not at all, or loving less freely, less completely, living alone? Isn’t this the same as hurting, potentially, all the time? In Erik’s opinion, the former is a risk worth taking, a free-falling plunge he’s willing to fall into backwards, eyes closed. Why? Because whatever the investment may be — financial, emotional, physical, spiritual — the gains are doubled when they’re done with love. At home with his wife and kids and at work with his patients and team — his two families that simply go by different names — Erik’s method of leading with love is working. It’s about giving everything you’ve got.
I’ve mentioned before that my greatest undertaking for 2015 has been working with my team of writers at RTC to write my book, Leading with Love. We are familiar with the concept at RTC. It’s been our mantra for the past two years, and we are lucky enough to watch it in action and feel its impact every single day with our clients. But when I met Erik at Conscious Capitalism in the fall, I was stunned by how effortlessly our values aligned despite our varying professions. We are a storytelling company, he is a dentist. We support our clients in sharing their message with words on the page, Erik and his team are restructuring the patient’s experience, finding the time and space to value the body on the receiving end of their care. He is adamant that this starts with love.
If you break it down, leading with love calls for heightened consciousness (might explain why two like minds found one another at a conference called Conscious Capitalism). It’s about listening, but even more importantly, it’s about actually hearing what is being said. It’s about making time to listen, and space to process what you’ve heard. When you are conscious and present for the other human being a different conversation transpires. It’s one of trust. From trust, grows a community and with a trusting community, you gain a culture. Much like the Field Day race, there are no short cuts to achieving trust, to strengthening community, or creating culture. You simply have to love what you do and grow toward it.
As we talked, Erik said something that struck a nerve. He said, “Corey, what I love most about what I do is listening to people. What I love even more is that they know, by the end of our conversation, that I cared about what they had to say.” That’s what it takes to lead, be it from your doctor’s chair, your fancy Herman Miller CEO chair at the head of the oak table, or from the front of the classroom, with love.
Rand Stagen recently said to me that leaders get the organization they deserve. If you’re focused on the profit of your work, things are only good when there’s a profit. But, if you’re passionate about the purpose of your work, you can always look in the mirror and be proud of your day.
We have to trust that our bodies and minds can push further than we think they can. We have to trust that we can give everything we have to something we love. And we have to trust that that love will translate into leadership.