Legendary management expert and author, Ken Blanchard, boldly stated, “Servant leadership is love in action.”
While the term “servant leadership” has breached the business lexicon over the years, the word “love” remains off-putting and taboo in the workplace.
To dispel any further doubt and clear any confusion about its usage, I speak of the type of selfless, “I got your back” love that demonstrates commitment, loyalty, respect, care, and high regard for others.
It’s expressed not as a squishy feeling but as an “action verb” that declares, “I value you as an employee and human being and will do everything I can to set you up for success.”
Ever worked for such a leader?
Love in action at Flexjobs
As we are finding, actionable love shown in how employees are treated, empowered, and developed has been proven to raise performance and boost productivity.
I’ve scoured the globe looking for evidence of such high-profile leaders and work cultures on display. Sara Sutton, CEO & Founder of FlexJobs, ranks high on my list without a doubt.
I’ve covered FlexJobs before — the leading job site for the best remote, part-time, freelance, and other flexible jobs that you probably won’t find anywhere else.
But my most recent interview with Sutton was all about her, and it exceeded my own expectations about where the future of work and leadership are headed. Her authentic focus and mission for putting humans first blew me away.
Here is my conversation with the honorable Sara Sutton (edited for length).
Describe your leadership philosophy?
Sutton: Much about leadership is about creating the type of environment that I myself want to exist in and see in the world–which is one that supports and encourages people to shine, but also understands that struggles occur as a part of life and are an integral part of the process too. This manifests in our company culture (which is entirely remote), and from day one, I’ve been very conscientious about how to create an “environment” that allows these underlying beliefs to thrive in our culture.
What does that look like day-to-day and strategically for FlexJobs?
Sutton: Some of the specifics of that mean kindness, empathy, integrity, respect, empowerment, and open communication. It means understanding that when a team member is having a hard time or being exceptionally challenged, we are expected to approach the situation with these values. This can be about taking the time to give people what they need to succeed, exploring the reasons why something didn’t work, and focusing on learning on how to improve for next time. We really try to embrace these values all of the time, not just sometimes.
How have you seen “love in action” played out at your company?
Sutton: This “love in action” manifests the most dramatically in difficult personal circumstances when it’s a need rather than a want. For example, when an employee’s loved one has a serious medical issue needing surgery, or when an employee suffered a traumatic third trimester stillbirth, which required a short leave and much sensitivity and empathy to support her return to work, or an emergency such as a flood/hurricane/tornado/fire impacts their lives in a scary, upsetting, and/or damaging way. In each of these circumstances, and the hundreds of others over the years, we have chosen to embrace kindness and flexibility.
So what I’m hearing you say is you extend your company values to impact people’s personal lives outside of work?
Sutton: Too many companies don’t give enough credence to how important it is for people to feel happy, strong, and capable in both their professional and personal lives in order to truly do well at work in a sustainable manner. They try to force people to firmly compartmentalize their work and personal lives in a way that is counter-productive in my opinion. For us, we’re fortunate that our mission ties to helping people find a better way to work, a way that doesn’t compete with their personal lives as much. To support that, we operate in a way that considers and values the whole person.
I’ve been saying all along that fear kills a high performing culture where “love in action” flows freely. What do you do to make sure that fear is consistently pumped out of the atmosphere so engagement is high?
Sutton: When you have a fully distributed team, you’re given the opportunity out of necessity to operate in a culture of trust. For that to be truly effective and collaborative, each employee has to accept ownership of themselves and their own work. That means there has to be a strong sense of psychological safety. Employees need to know that they can be curious, offer up ideas, and try new things without fear. The best way to foster that is for leaders to model the behavior and show some vulnerability themselves.
What advice do you have for other leaders looking to model love in action as a business value that leads to results?
Sutton: Love is so often viewed as or assumed to be exclusively an emotion to be used in your personal life, but I absolutely recommend allowing yourself to approach your company and its stakeholders with it as well. “Love” speaks to relationships and how you build them, nurture them, strengthen them, and honor them–all of which can absolutely help contribute positively to your organization and its culture. The stronger the relationships you have, internally and externally, the stronger your defenses are for competitors to copy your model; the harder your team will work if and when the going gets tough; the more effective your hiring and retention will be with a healthy company culture; and the list goes on.
Any final words of wisdom?
Sutton: Don’t underestimate the power of treating the people around you–at work or otherwise–with love. If you believe in karma, there’s that, but even if you don’t, there is already way too much negativity in the world, and we have the massive opportunity to help use our leadership to put more good in the world and to make positive impact through how we treat our people. I try to put good in the world. That’s the bottom line.