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Love in the boardroom

- Beth Amato

Can love be the central guiding value in big business and in complex decisions?

Business, work, technology © Curiosity

The executive team of a corporation went away on a strategic retreat. Bonding around a late-night fire, they talked about the company they wanted to create – caring, inclusive, compassionate, fair, transparent … A young male executive asked, “Aren’t we just talking about love?” The company now operates in a culture of love and research reveals love in the smallest of big corporate places.

Could love alter the course of late capitalism, which has revealed exploitation, degradation of the environment, and the entrenchment of poverty and inequality?  

This is what Julie Courtnage, part-time Lecturer in the Wits Business School and Wits Mining Institute aims to answer through her research: Small Stories of Love and Sustainability in the Boardroom. She interviewed directors and board members of big companies, with the purpose of investigating the lived experiences of love, or not, in business.

“The research so far shows that love is indeed present in big companies and that it acts as a challenging and useful decision support frame,” says Courtnage.

Ordinarily, love is a nebulous concept to define – and even more so in the workplace, where love and business seem an oxymoron. How is it clearly articulated? 

“When a company operates in a culture of love, relationships come first. It takes a lot of time to learn to be vulnerable with one another and to find a purpose beyond making money,” says Courtnage. “Essentially, caring and love for self, others, and the world is paramount. Love goes beyond purpose and passion: you can pursue these without love and be ruthless and damaging, so there is a triangle of love, purpose and passion, to deliver ‘good work for good’. Every interviewee linked love to the driver behind high-performing people and teams.”

The love criterion

Decisions made in love, she notes, consider the effects on financial value, shareholders, other stakeholders, the environment, a specific operating team, or product offerings. 

If using love as a starting point for anything in business is obviously beneficial, then why isn’t it done more? Responses to Courtnage’s question included that the habits of capitalism are entrenched and difficult to change. Key performance indicators (KPIs) are often solely graded on financial performance.

“There is a lot of indoctrination in the masculine competitive and combative mindset, which holds ‘love’, ‘teamwork and connection’ and ‘vulnerability’ as weak,” she says.

Interestingly, the preliminary findings show that companies using love as the core of their business are doing well financially. “Obviously, instilling love as a company’s central value is a process, as it is so different to what we’ve always been told about being a man and making money,” says Courtnage.

Never too late to love 

We’ve already desecrated so much of the earth, and so much of the human spirit through the capitalist market and profit system, so how could love as the Holy Grail in business begin to untangle this mess?

“It is never too late to make changes, [but] if we make the changes from a place of expectations about specific outcomes, we will be disappointed. Everything is connected and so we cannot predict with any certainty what the outcomes might be. But we know that running the linear economy on the current rules has failed most people and the environment … If we now shift the paradigm to love, we will definitely have a different perspective on the problems, and the possible solutions,” she says.

In the wake of the pandemic, it became apparent that common health and wellbeing can, with political will and societal buy-in, trump business as usual. As an example, business competitors joined forces to produce technical equipment.

“The most important thing that love brings is an openness to others – to hearing what is important to them, to considering this in business decisions, and creating something that takes all sources of value – people, the environment and money – into consideration. Love fundamentally reconnects us with what it means to be human.”

Having been in the sustainability space for 30 years, and seeing how little has changed, Courtnage thinks that speaking out openly and vociferously about love in business as an alternative is, perhaps, the vibrantly shocking wake-up call that may just provide us with the necessary energy, drive and perspective to solve some of the problems that fear, lack, and exclusion have produced.

  • Beth Amato is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 12th issue, themed: #Solutions. We explore #WitsForGood solutions to the structural, political and socioeconomic challenges that persist in South Africa, and we are encouraged by astounding ‘moonshot moments’ where Witsies are advancing science, health, engineering, technology and innovation.