When I was a young professor working at a new college campus, many of us were caught up in the excitement of what we were doing: we were growing an institution from scratch that was going to transform our community. There aren’t many opportunities these days to build a university from the ground up, and we were in the thrall of entrepreneurial fever. People worked hard, pitching in whenever needed and sacrificing time for other things outside of work. We created new degree programs, met with community leaders, and built the scaffolding for the future while teaching classes and working closely with students. Faculty and staff routinely worked 12 hour days and came in on weekends. We thrived on the heady feeling of being builders and pioneers.
But as any entrepreneur will tell you, that approach to organization-building is simply not sustainable. Everyone grows tired. Some people burn out, and some become disillusioned when the reality doesn’t match the perfect vision that inspired them in the first place.
The most important lesson I learned from that time period was this: Organizations don’t love you back. You can invest every waking moment in an organization and give it your all, but you can never expect care or loyalty in return. I don’t say this as an indictment of the place where I work — it is a universal phenomenon imbedded in the very nature of organizations. Organizations can’t love you back because when we come together to do something more than what we can accomplish alone, our vision transforms from a perfect idea to a collection of imperfect structures, processes and people who must grapple with the realities of different preferences and limited resources. Under good leadership, the needs of the organization as a whole outweigh the needs of the individual, so sometimes your needs will be out of sync with the collective good. And we don’t always enjoy good leaders. Under bad leadership, the ego of the leader or the needs of a few special favorites take priority. Either way, the organization doesn’t love you back.
You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, I know of some places where workers are appreciated and valued.” Thankfully, there are plenty of great organizations. But never forget that they are great because of the people that work there, not the organization itself. The people make the place. Organizations can’t love you back, but people can.
More than twenty years later, I see the broader implications of this statement for leadership. Leaders are responsible for the collective good of the organization, but they are equally responsible to “love people back.” This means leaders as individuals must strive to treat people with respect and compassion (even when are tired, angry, frustrated, or fearful). It also means that leaders must actively build a culture that encourages everyone else to do the same. Respect and compassion make it possible for us to work through our differences, and make people feel valued and whole. We know in advance that humans can’t perfectly achieve this, but imagine how great it would be to work in a place where love (in the sense of philia — care within a community) is a central value.