Ricciardi with other CVDL doctoral students

Why Love is the First Leadership Skill You Should Develop: Return on Values Feature

Amber Johnson Care for people, Culture, Leadership, Return on Values

Ricciardi (center) with other doctoral students.

Ricciardi (center) with other doctoral students.

Lieutenant Colonel Joe Ricciardi stood before his battalion of 1000 soldiers deployed with clearing roads of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan, and gave them one simple message:

You need to love one another.

A nervous energy moved through the room. “I got a few funny stares, I saw a few smirks,” Ricciardi recalls. “But after reinforcing the concept I realized that they ‘got it’ – they understood.”

Why did it feel so awkward to be told to love your colleagues? Ricciardi wanted to know. Months later when, as part of his doctoral studies with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, Ricciardi needed to choose a dissertation topic, he returned to the question that had been nagging him since that day:

How does love influence leadership?  

Now, Ricciardi’s research is complete and has his a preliminary answer: A team member who feels ‘loved’ by his boss is significantly more likely to see his boss as a good leader. Leading your employees is a natural outgrowth of loving them.

So what does the relationship between love and leadership look like in the workplace? Under the direction of his dissertation chair, Dr. Kevin Lynch (who is also a researcher with the Return on Values project), Ricciardi explored the question through a survey.

Drawing from research in psychology and other fields, Ricciardi defined love as “intimacy, passion, and commitment.” Below we explore those concepts, illustrated by Ricciardi’s research and the stories of Service Express, Incorporated (SEI), one of the companies studied as part of the Return on Values project.

Intimacy Dwarfs them All

Intimacy: knowing and caring about the personal lives of your team members in an authentic and appropriate way.

Ricciardi’s survey showed that the three factors of love – intimacy, passion, and commitment – showed a strong positive correlation to leadership, but, Ricciardi says, “Intimacy dwarfs them all.”

“Intimacy rules because if you’ve invested the time, emotion and positive energy into building an intimate relationship with your team, you will have demonstrated commitment and your passion will shine through,” he says.

One of the best leaders Ricciardi ever worked for mastered this skill. The senior executive knew spouse’s names, children’s birthdays, and anniversaries. “I would come in on a Monday, and he would ask me about something I did that weekend that I forgot ever mentioning to him,” Ricciardi recalls. The executive was sincere and authentic in his concern.

In your workplace, establishing intimacy may be as simple as taking a few extra minutes a day to notice new family photos on cubicle walls and pausing to ask about them; or remembering a special event and sending a simple handwritten note.

At Service Express Incorporated (SEI), a Michigan-based company studied as part of the Return on Values project, leaders establish intimacy by affirming the company’s commitment to the personal goals of team members. When a team member identifies a priority such as being at her child’s sports games, the manager will work to make this possible. Managers lend support to even bigger goals, like helping an employee who wants to buy a home establish a savings plan or learn about real estate or mortgages.

Watch now: Make Your Boss Work for You: How One Company’s Fierce Commitment to Personal Goals Drives Corporate Success

SEI is so committed to this that the company’s vision is to help team members accomplish their personal, professional, and financial goals. “That’s more of our vision than creating maintenance contracts and fixing computers and doing all those things,” says CFO Kraig Harper.

Passion at Work

Passion: the positive energy you bring to work. The enthusiasm with which you tackle your day, communicate with others, and describe your company’s mission. 

“Ask someone where they work or what they do for a living, and you will know in the first 10 seconds if they are passionate about it,” Ricciardi says. “Passion and positivity are contagious.”

This positive energy has been shown to make or break a team. (See ROV co-principal investigator Kim Cameron’s work on positive energy networks for more on that.) At SEI, it’s an individual’s passion for service that defines their leadership capacity. President Ron Alvesteffer describes it this way:

An A player around here, … a top performer, is one that not only does their job extremely well and gets great results, but they do it in a way that lets everybody else in the company achieve their results as well. 

The passion for service helps others succeed – directly tying this concept of love to the characteristics of a good leader.

WATCH NOW: 98%: How One Company Has Mastered Exceptional Customer Service

Committed to Each Other, and to a Higher Task

Commitment: A dedication to the well-being of others and to the shared task.

Being committed to the well-being and development of others is grounded in intimacy – how well you truly know the individual – but requires intentional acts to help support their goals.

“All too often leaders assume they are demonstrating commitment to one’s well-being, but in reality they have no idea what is important to that individual,” says Ricciardi. Leaders can demonstrate commitment by being concerned for the development of others.

At SEI, leaders like COO Dwight Strayer focus on coaching employees rather than giving answers, even when a customer is on the line.

Strayer recalls when he stopped answering questions and started asking them instead. “People would ask me a question and I’d say, what do you think? What do you think we should do? What are the options?  How do you think we should handle that?” Strayer says as his commitment to developing people by teaching them to be problems solvers grew, his team members became more engaged.

WATCH NOW: How to Empower Your People and Save Yourself from Burnout: Coach, Don’t Tell

Strong leaders, Ricciardi says, are also able to tie your task to a higher purpose, showing how your work influences the greater whole.

SEI’s leaders use a team member-driven metric system to help individuals set organizational goals that role up into wider organizational objectives. “We helped teams identify what are the most important measure that you’re supposed to be working on,” says CFO Kraig Harper. The company looks for individual goals that work together to help the team and the company be successful. The result is clarity around objectives and how they contribute to the greater good.

WATCH NOW: Three Pillars of a People-Focused, Results-Driven Culture

What Leaders Should Do Now

Ricciardi, who earned his doctorate earlier this month, shows us the connection between love and leadership at work, and says the next steps for leaders in the workplace are shockingly simple:

  • Genuinely know and care about your people (and their families).
  • Be passionate about what you do.
  • Be committed to their well-being and the task at hand.

That’s it.

Do these things, he says, and the research implies your team will know confidently and deeply that you love them, and you’ll be perceived as a stronger and more effective leader. If love can enable the toughest soldiers to excel in the most extreme environments of stress, its success in the IED-free workplace is virtually guaranteed.


Amber Johnson is the corporate relations advisor for the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. This article first appeared on the Return on Values Project website, www.returnonvaluesproject.com. Visit the site for more findings from the ROV research, and related videos.


Looking to grow your own leadership capacity while leading your company? Learn more our M.S. in values-driven leadership – designed for executives.


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