Work as a Love Language

To lead beautifully means finding the right words for someone else’s work.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

This week has been one of the darkest of the year: sunsets at 4 p.m. here in Berlin where I live, and in the U.S. alone, the number of COVID cases is growing exponentially, with as many as 1 in 300 Americans now testing positive.

But there is light, too.

Along with many others, I read about Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, the scientist husband-and-wife dream team behind BioNTech’s and Pfizer’s joint COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough. Not only does their research potentially have an enormous impact on our lives, but their personal story is also inspiring and a beacon of hope to many.

As the author of a book on business romanticism, it truly hit home for me. Şahin and Türeci personify what I’ve been writing about for the past few years: work as a deeply personal labor of love, a commitment to a cause greater than yourself, and an element of romance in all of it.

It was particularly heartwarming to read the comments on social media for a change. So many people had nice things to say. Some praised the two scientists for their humility and work ethic. Others heralded them — German citizens of Turkish origin — as a vivid example of a more diverse and inclusive society, while others noted their age (they are both over 50) to make a point about age discrimination. Almost all of the comments I came across were generous, genuine, and graceful. They added even more light to something already brightly lit.

Also this past week, two articles in the New York Times stuck with me: one was a book review of Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Beautifully crafted, the review matches the quality of its subject and is an artful text on its own, not stealing the show but making the original sparkle even more. The comments were replete with praise for both the reviewer and the subject (“Even without yet reading the book, I feel like I already know it, yet remain keen on reading the real thing;” “History will be kind to Obama”). You don’t have to agree with all the points that were made, but in this case, too, I was touched by their kindness.

Moreover, I read a Times portrait of the pianist Keith Jarrett following the release of his latest recording, Budapest Concert, which was most likely his last live performance. After experiencing two strokes, the most he could do with his left hand was maybe to hold a cup, he told the reporters. The readers’ comments showed an outpouring of love! Browsing through them, one instantly recognizes how many souls Jarrett has touched with his music, and how dearly his live performances will be missed.

All of these responses made me realize: Finding words for the work (and the words) of others is an act of love. It is what critics do, and fans — and lovers. They give each other names, build on each other’s language, and even develop their own, a secret code that bestows meaning on the most mundane.

There are people who believe love manifests in actions and becomes concrete when we touch, but I’m not one of them. I guess that makes me a romantic. I believe love is words, including those futile attempts to capture what cannot be said and remains unattainable. Actions do not speak louder than words because words do not “speak” at all. They just sit there potently and become even quieter — and more powerful — the more carefully they are chosen. Love becomes concrete when we find the right words for one another.

If we want to make business more beautiful, we need to heed this lesson. We need to be more tender, but not just in the breaks between growth sprints, filled with mindfulness and meditation exercises, rituals, or retreats. No, we need to wrap business in new words with every single interaction, reading and writing more into things that they might present on the surface. Email, PowerPoint, Slack, memos, performance reviews, or meetings — to lead beautifully means developing a love language. It means honoring someone else’s work, someone else’s words with your own; to not dim the light but brighten it; to not criticize but critique each other with the words of a reviewer, a fan, a lover.