My first memory of feeling really inspired dates back to my English teacher in secondary school, Mrs Boland. Although we were all adolescent teenagers, she somehow captured our imagination, helped us to believe in ourselves, and encouraged us to tune into our own individual strengths. She got us to think for ourselves instead of only teaching us, she challenged us on who we were as people, as well as how bright we were, and boy, was she a great storyteller. Looking back, it was one of my earliest experiences of a brilliant leader.

Fast forward to last year and I was inspired by another teacher, my son’s headteacher. In the face of COVID and the myriad of challenges facing every school leader across the country, she made time to support my child and our family with our own challenges. She didn’t email me, she called me. She delivered some difficult messages directly but in the most compassionate way. She listened to us, fully, acknowledging our situation and feelings wholeheartedly.

When we think of great leaders, we think first of those who have inspired us, who have believed in us, and who have used their position to empower us, not themselves. We also often think of those who have taken decisive action when needed, taken the tough calls before it was too late but importantly, have done so with character, compassion, and heart. We only have to look back over the last two years to see that the most successful leaders have listened to their people, demonstrated they genuinely care, and have shown true compassion – as well as having the courage to say, “I’m not OK”, winning respect and trust in abundance. Yes, we have needed a clear strategy and plan to navigate COVID but we have needed it from leaders that we feel connected to.

Great leaders have often known personal struggle but rather than be driven by the legacy of that pain, they use it to understand others. They have great wisdom and emotional intelligence to see past facts and figures to the people and lives that live beyond them. They speak with
courage, and humility, with both the imagination to picture what seems possible and the patience to make it a reality. Their authority comes from within and is not dependent on the external rank of recognition. So much about love represents being an advocate for the success and wellbeing of others. It is unconditional and selfless. The same can be said of true leadership. Something we see in the very best leaders is the clear understanding that they are in service to the people around them – and they love it that way.

It might be Valentine’s Day once a year but when you consider these stories of kindness, listening, and empowerment, it’s not difficult to see how love really is at the very heart of leadership, 365 days a year.
It might not present itself in a red heart-shaped balloon but is there a love that is stronger than enabling others to succeed? Leading with love doesn’t require title or authority. It doesn’t stem from privilege or entitlement. Instead, it guides and connects, invests and inspires, and moves people to transformation and action.

Lead with love and the legacy you leave will be lifelong.