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Mary Miller: What does Love have to do with Leadership?

Mary Miller, What does Love have to do with Leadership? (Oxford, UK: Regnum Press/Wipf & Stock, 2013), 100 pages, ISBN 9781908355102.

The title of the book is both provocative and indeed what draws a potential reader to open the book. Miller’s purpose for writing is to examine the research concerning love as an aspect of leadership and to offer readers a connection between theory and practical application, whereby leaders have a solid foundation of research on which to build their leadership capacity to love others in their organizations. Chapters one to three focus on theory and research on topics such as power, values, and transformational leadership. Chapters four to seven contain more practical application with a focus on listening as a leader skill and on self-reflection for leaders to discern where they fall short.

Miller defines love as “empathy with action” and means that leaders should behave in ways that show followers they are valued. Leader actions include sharing power and cultivating a learning organization. Sharing power with others results in mutual stimulation, where the leader readily admits not having all the answers and is open to followers to contribute to the vision of the organization and to learning from the followers. As Miller points out, sharing power is not about abdicating responsibility but exploiting the full potential of the organization’s members by enabling their voices to be heard. A learning organization is one that is open to anyone within the organization giving and receiving input. When leaders are more concerned with covering up their weaknesses, they will be unable to foster a learning environment because they are themselves unwilling to learn.

There are two dominant mindsets in the world of business or any kind of organization.

One is a productive mindset, and it says it’s a good idea to seek valid knowledge, it’s a good idea to craft your conversations so you make explicit what you are thinking and trying to examine. You craft them in such a way that you can test, as clearly as you can, the validity of your claims. Truth is a good idea. All the managerial functions—accounting, all of them—have a fundamental notion that the productive mindset is what ought to be used to manage human beings.

Then there’s another mindset I call the defensive mindset. The idea is that even if you are seeking valid knowledge, you are seeking only that kind of valid knowledge that protects yourself or your organization or your department—it is defensive. From a defensive mindset point of view, truth is a good idea when it isn’t threatening or upsetting. If it is, massage it, spin it. But if you massage it and spin it, you’re violating the espoused theory of good management. When you spin, you have to cover up the fact that you’re spinning. And in order for a cover up to work, it too has to be covered up.

—Chris Argyris (“Surfacing Your Underground Organization” on by Mallory Stark, November 1, 2004, via Wikiquote)

Building on renowned social scientist Chris Argyris’s “ladder of inference,” Miller provides a framework for leaders to use in practicing empathy with action. The example behavior given in the book is listening. The first rung of the ladder requires leaders to collect data; that is, to observe and to experience. In the case of listening, leaders observe their own behaviors and ideas and the behaviors and ideas of others and reflect on whether they are open to hearing what others have to say and contribute, or if they think they already know the best course of action. Subsequent rungs on the ladder require leaders to find meaning in the data, test their assumptions, and draw conclusions based on the previous steps. Miller cautions that when leaders arrive at conclusions not supported by the data, meaning, and assumptions, it suggests that leaders are embedded in their own thinking and not open to learning. The final rung in the ladder concerns the leader’s beliefs where new and potentially opposing ideas from others have challenged the leader’s own assumptions and conclusions. When leaders are open to reconsidering their own conclusions and to being influenced by other voices, they can change their beliefs. Miller stresses that this is not an example of a double-minded person tossed by every wind of doctrine, but rather an honest examination of truth and whether the leader’s beliefs do in fact line up with what is true for the organization or situation.

The most useful part of the book is in chapter six, where Miller explains how to create a learning environment. A major but not singular aspect to creating a learning environment is establishing teamwork, which involves a strong component of mutuality. Mutuality consists of all members having ownership of their jobs; enabling an exchange of ideas without fear of censure; practicing behaviors that encourage transformation, such as listening, making time for others, etc.; and removing conditions that foster powerlessness among the organization’s members. In addition to nurturing teamwork, leaders must also enable follower input, evaluate morale, listen to others and create an environment where listening occurs throughout the organization, develop the strengths of employees, and focus on both the well-being of the employees and the organization. These behaviors have been shown by research to foster and sustain a learning environment.

Although the book has some merit for leaders interested in cultivating an organization where members seek the good of others, on the whole, it does not fulfill the promise of the title. Miller does not specifically direct the book toward ministry leaders, and while that is not a problem, it reads like a dissertation that has been somewhat adapted for a more general audience. It is clear in the first few chapters that many leaders would be unfamiliar with some of the concepts and theories that Miller discusses. While there is room for readers to learn something new about theories and research, beyond the academic tone, the subject matter is not explained in a way that leaders can quickly digest and then practice what Miller expounds. Some attempt is made in the latter part of the book to provide a more praxis-oriented view; thus, readers may want to skip to that section—something Miller suggests as a possibility. The theoretical component of the content is interesting to be sure, but the book could be condensed and better presented in an article format. Consequently, leaders may want to spend their limited reading time elsewhere.

Reviewed by Michelle Vondey


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Category: Fall 2015, Ministry

About the Author: Michelle Vondey, Ph.D. (Regent University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), has more than twenty years’ experience working in non-profit organizations. Her interests are focused mainly on developing followers in their roles in organizations. She teaches courses in leadership, critical reasoning, and Christian discipleship. 2012 dissertation LinkedIn

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