Does Love Work as a Leadership Principle?

Photo Credit: (KY3)

As I stumbled for my alarm at 3:00 a.m. on my first day on the job as a street washer, I wondered what I was getting myself into. CBS had asked my company to participate in its hit reality show Undercover Boss. As the CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE) at that time, I’d agreed to work at Silver Dollar City, our original theme park in Branson, Missouri. I had no idea that what was about to transpire would change my life and my leadership approach forever.  

Before coming to HFE as CEO, I had spent 20 years in the auto industry where I witnessed mostly an autocratic and intimidating form of leadership. The results of this style were troubling; I observed a lack of innovation, arrogant leaders, little focus on culture or people, and sub-optimal financial results.

I always thought there was a better way to lead, but I had not seen a better way modeled until I arrived at HFE. In fact, I had an angst in my soul that longed to see better leadership and BE a better leader. But I thought I was the only one who felt that way.     

At HFE, my eyes were opened to something very different: a loving culture that put the employee experience and the guest experience on equal footing with the financial performance. We actually taught LOVE, the verb, to our employees. We defined LOVE as being Patient, Kind, Trusting, Truthful, Forgiving, Unselfish, and Dedicated. Yes, our leaders had to hit the financial goals, but they also had to lead according to these seven words and were held accountable to them.

So, as I worked with Richard on that cold morning in Branson, washing the streets of Silver Dollar City at 4 AM, I was able to witness our culture in action, and so did the TV cameras. I was honored to meet and observe hard-working employees like Richard, who treated each other well and treated our guests even better. To top it off, I was able to help Richard rebuild his home that was destroyed in a flood through a foundation we had started to help employees in need. During filming, I had the chance to work in a variety of roles and meet other dedicated employees like Richard, all of whom were able to receive help from our foundation. Thankfully, the show captured this very special culture and unique leadership model.

While I knew it made an enormous impression on me, I could not have anticipated the chord that our show struck with America. 20 million people viewed our episode of Undercover Boss , and as a result, we were inundated with thousands of letters, emails, and calls wondering how others could create the great culture that HFE exemplified. It turned out I wasn’t the only one with an “angst in my soul”! Thousands of others shared the same angst.

The simple truth is this: there is a crisis of confidence and character in leadership. The level of dissatisfaction and even resentment present in the thousands of letters and email messages shocked me. People felt as if they couldn’t trust their leaders and bosses. That’s why our episode of Undercover Boss provoked such an overwhelming response. People were desperate for something new, something better. Countless workers wanted more from their leaders and their work environment, and we were hearing about it. 

Leading with love is counterintuitive in today’s business environment because it turns many so-called leadership principles upside-down. Yet the outpouring of support from people who had never even heard of HFE convinced me that while we might be doing something slightly crazy by leading with love, we were also doing something that people were desperately seeking. 

As a result of the overwhelming interest in a better way, I decided to write the book LOVE WORKS: 7 Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders, which has sold over 100,000 copies and is a leadership bestseller. 

A frequent question I get from business leaders regarding leading with love is, “I understand the desire to be more loving, but can you hit the financial returns our owners demand?” The answer is a resounding yes, but the numbers are just the beginning. At HFE, we had a better return on investment than any of our large publicly held regional competitors. I was curious to see if the same results could be achieved on a bigger stage, so I set off to find out. Sure enough, during my time as CEO of SeaWorld, our internal employee scores, guest experience scores, and attendance all increased using these methods.  

In addition, we statistically validated that the seven words of love have the greatest positive correlation to increased employee engagement scores. Gallup has statistically validated my own findings and experience with several poles, all of which conclude that higher employee engagement leads to lower turnover, improved guest loyalty, and increased profitability; and that is just the beginning!

I can tell you unequivocally that there is in fact a better way, and that way is leading with love. It’s a way to lead that grows the bottom line and respects employees, and a way to lead that demands accountability and gives second chances. In short, it’s a powerful way to transform the way you lead and the culture of your organization.

And now, through John Maxwell Enterprise, you can access the secrets to leading with love in a digital format packed with real-life stories and applications of how you can lead with love! I am so excited for you to learn this better way to lead!

Click here for more information about my brand-new online course.