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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

11 February 2022 - Zoë Arden, CISL Fellow and Head Tutor of the Women Leading Change: Shaping Our Future online course, explores why we need to place love at the heart of our leadership to create genuine and lasting change. 

It’s that time of year when love is on the agenda. However, it is profoundly important that we place love at the heart of our leadership every day of the year. It is only from a place of love that genuine and lasting change – social justice, climate change and inclusion – can be achieved.

Love shapes how we think and how we behave. Often our biggest motivator is love. It’s why the stories that move us profoundly are often centred around our children and families. We treat what we love differently. Indigenous rights lawyer and activist Sherri Mitchell pictures the positive possibilities if we can “make a ritual of falling in love with mother earth”. Indeed, it’s been Sir David Attenborough’s life’s work.

The last two years have led many people to make a stronger connection between love and care, health and healing. Healing, health and holy all share the same root word ‘Hal’ which means to make whole. Might it be possible to lead our organisations and communities whole-heartedly so that we tread more lightly on the planet and take the actions required to heal the world? Here are 7 ways we can put love at the heart of our leadership:

1. Start with ourselves: build self-awareness

When we start by knowing and loving ourselves, we can create organisations that build cultures of belonging and safety; and put care for all creatures and the environment at the heart of our purpose.

Taking care of things well requires us to first take care of ourselves says Andres Roberts, founding partner of The Bio-Leadership Project. He asks, “How can we cultivate qualities for understanding, consciousness, resilience, connection, transformation and care — without working on those qualities within ourselves?”. Deepening our self-awareness, exposing our biases and shadows is not for the faint-hearted. It requires vigour and vigilance. As author and activist Marianne Williamson observes, “It takes courage ... to endure the sharp pains of self-discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.”.

Digging deep into our true nature can reap rewards. When you can align the inner reality of who you are with what you do, you create a connection to a sense of wholeness that allows you to be in service to a bigger purpose.

2. Be open to learning  

Whole-hearted leaders embrace learning. They listen, show vulnerability, are aware of their weak spots, and share mistakes. In Regenerative Leadership, Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm note that it is vital that we “remember or relearn how to read the patterns, relationships, energies, insights, and intelligences innate within life”. The late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that it was through mindful actions that we help to sustain our own wellbeing and kindness to begin to understand deeper aspects of healing and change.

3. Nurture qualities of love

These include an inclusive mindset, empathy, humility, compassion, acceptance, understanding and curiosity. Academic Otto Scharmer’s Theory U framing moves through Absencing to Presencing which includes the characteristics of open mind, open heart and open will.

4. Be authentic

Don’t waste energy faking faux qualities and covering up your real self. Brené Brown is a long-time proponent of brave-hearted authenticity: “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”.

5. Lead with love 

Why are emotions such as anger, envy and pride acceptable in the workplace but love is not? Expert scholar Dr Barbara Fredrickson says positive emotions increase creativity and make us more resourceful and resilient. Of the ten most common positive emotions, none is more powerful than love. Leadership coach Julie Daley notes that the people we lead will be engaged, alive, creative, and motivated when they know they are “loved, accepted, cherished, and celebrated simply for being who” they are. We do this “through love, by loving the people we lead, and by loving ourselves first and in the process.” One organisation, US-based VaynerMedia has even appointed a Chief Heart Officer.

6. Create cultures of care

Organisations that embrace love and humanity can realise many benefits. Safety and trust develop when people bring their whole selves to work, where they can speak up, don’t self-censor, and feel they belong. ‘Fearless organisations’ to use Amy Edmondson’s language, communities where employees are not afraid to make mistakes and challenge. These cultures of radical care and candour are more inclusive and encourage diversity. In her book, Beyond Engagement - the value of love-based leadership in organisations, Yetunde Y. Hofmann says we should be willing to explore how a love-based leadership and love-based culture can make a material difference to performance, creativity and employee engagement. Moreover, how does this culture of care extend beyond our organisations to planetary boundaries? Given that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, it makes sense to put love on the menu. 

7. Stay centred in systems

Systems change starts with ourselves, connecting our outer nature and our inner nature, and expanding the boundaries of care. All systems and living beings are interconnected. We can’t compartmentalise. Picture the Japanese Ikigai diagram: overlapping petals where we articulate our true purpose, our reason for being. If we are lucky, it includes aligning what we love and what the world needs. As systems scholar Donella Meadows says, “The future can't be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. We can't control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them.”.

In his poetic memoir, A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen tells the story of one man striving to save his own spirit and that of our planet.All we want... is to love and be loved, to be accepted, cherished, and celebrated simply for being who we are. Is that so very difficult?”. If we want to manifest a world where we love ourselves, love our neighbour and our colleagues, connect with a bigger purpose for a thriving planet, let’s nurture whole-hearted leadership. And maybe February 14th is a good place to start?

About the author


Zoë Arden is a CISL fellow and leadership consultant. She is also the co-convenor of Women Leading Change: Shaping Our Future, the latest online short course from CISL which starts on March 2nd 2022. The course will support women who want to want to drive systemic transformation in their organisations and communities; and build their ability to lead with confidence, resilience, and of course, love.


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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