A Brief Case for Love

“The word “love” is most often defined as a noun, yet the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb.”

― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

In light of the lines from bell hooks above, and in thinking of how the values of our organizations should ultimately be able to answer the question “how do we behave?”, I think we would all love better if we knew what love as a verb looked like.

When folks use the word love these days, I often wonder what it means to them. What does it feel like in their lived, personal dictionary which has cataloged all of their experiences of what they’ve been told and have experienced as “love”? 

We all learn about love differently. It’s modeled to us in our early days, between ages of “in-womb” to six years old when we’re picking up on our caregivers’ every move. Later in life and relationships, we then model what we learned. We often think that our known version of love is for-sure love, though some of us keep hitting the edges of those definitions, question our own lexicon of loving, and keep learning into new definitions of what it means to love. 

Often what we had experienced and thought was love is not the full picture, and the opportunity we have is to uncover all the ways we can open up the spigot and let real love flow in. When we do this, love can flow all the way to the office in a way that will serve our workplace in the way we intend when folks such as author Steve Farber assert that love is just good business. 

What gets in the way of real love in the workplace is similar to what gets in the way of us experiencing love in the rest of life: sorting through and healing the wounding from our past. We embark on the journey to real love when we begin making choices to respond to the world differently than our creature brain and the coping mechanisms that got us through the various and sundried parts of life, to where we are now. We learn what it means to be ourselves and how to love and accept that self first. We learn to take responsibility for our own side of the aisle — the only thing we really have control over — and in turn, we show up differently. When we each do our part, it makes it easier to come together with others and embrace our shared humanity, create spaces of true belonging, and work together on problems, issues, solutions to things outside ourselves out in the world. 

“The biggest impediment to humane workplaces is the unsorted baggage we carry, the wounds we have,” Jerry noted to me over dinner last week. “We fear that our past negative experiences (from work or otherwise) will be re-enacted. We’re therefore too afraid–too afraid to trust.” When we let those negative experiences cloud our present sense of things, we start defending against it in ways ruled by fear and acted out onto others. 

So, what is love? Let’s clear this one up. 

Love is not co-founder fistfights and cultures where employees don’t feel safe to be themselves, speak up, or give feedback. It’s not feeling like you’re walking on eggshells or playing small to be safe. Love is not betraying yourself and choosing to be with others and their poor behavior. Enduring unkindness or cruelty, only to “forgive and forget,” is not love. Love is not putting yourself in harm’s way or being harmful. It is not passivity, nor aggression, nor passive aggression.

Many of our learned behaviors of survival are (unpleasant) ways to find what can end up being a false belonging (or, a false sense of love and connection). Yet, for some of us, depending on the family situation and culture we grew up in, those ways of interacting may be all our nervous systems know is possible. 

In her book, All About Love, hooks writes: “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”

When we’re loved, we feel seen and heard by ourselves and others. We feel safe to be ourselves and have the security in ourselves to trust that and know when and where we are safe. As much as that sense of safety and trust depends on the external environment, it also depends on our internal environment and our ability to honor what we know to be true and what we need. Love is a choice. In order to arrive here, we must go inward to grow up. 

We try hard to run from a lot of these places, but when it comes to real love, there’s no room for emotional avoidance. Real love in action can be a vulnerable, and therefore occasionally scary, pursuit. Knowing our relationship with self, relationship to other, to our community, to something larger than us, begins with healing our distortions in perceiving what love is and learning what it isn’t.

Love is clear boundaries and knowing where you stand. It is knowing what you need and tending to your own well being. It’s taking responsibility for your actions and your emotional regulation. Love is knowing the difference between the subconscious self and the higher self, the false self and the authentic self, and continually uncovering their many layers. Love is freedom to be you, to speak your truth in a way that does not hurt others, and to consciously create your life by making choices that are in integrity with your purpose and values. 

That love shows up differently at work because it knows the mix of the various ingredients hooks references: care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication. 

The first step of leadership takes personal growth and learning a more functional way to be in the world, with each other, and with ourselves. As I like to say to clients: it’s an inside job. Yet, that is how better humans make better leaders. Then, love does make damn good business. We meet the challenges of life and entrepreneurship with the skills we have and what we’ve learned about our way of being in the world. 

As hooks reminds us, “Love is an action. Never simply a feeling.” Adulting done well shows in a commitment to learning about yourself and becoming more fully human so that you can handle the other currents of life as they arise — the psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual, and the entrepreneurial.