The 5 Leadership Love Languages

By Christopher Manganaro

Leadership and love go hand in hand. Just as leadership has both direct and indirect influence over others, love behaves the same way. How you express this love is unique to how you interpret the relationship. The stern drill sergeant provides “tough love” to young recruits to turn them into Soldiers. The chaplain will provide words of encouragement to reveal a different perspective. We often see them on opposite ends of the leadership spectrum, but the drill sergeant and the chaplain share one key understanding. They both understand how to employ the five love languages based on their situation.

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U.S. Marines fire an M240B medium machine gun during exercise Blue Chromite 15 on the Central Training Area in Okinawa, Japan, Nov. 2, 2014. Marines rode in assault amphibious vehicles in a ship-to-shore assault from the USS Germantown to Oura Wan Beach, and then advanced inland to the training area. Link to DoD photo.

You may be familiar with Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts. (I highly recommend it!) In the book, he describes how we express our love and receive our love from our partner. Each person is unique and realizing these differences in marriage can make the difference between happiness and divorce. Similarly, leaders need to recognize that not all of their subordinates receive or give “leadership love” in the same way. Leaders can adapt Mr. Chapman’s principles and apply them to their organizations.

“Leadership” Love Language #1: Words of Affirmation

The saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Unfortunately, this grade school response to mean words does not hold true in the workplace. Negative words and statements do hurt. Negative emotions do affect work relationships. If you think back to the leaders you enjoyed working for, you’ll probably find that they were also the most positive and supportive. When we receive affirming words, we are far more likely to be productive and positive towards others.

Being a “loving” leader doesn’t mean overlooking poor performance. Authentic leaders who care about developing followers will correct substandard performance, but do it in ways that educate and encourage subordinates to improve.

“Leadership” Love Language #2: Quality Time

While technology has made us connected and accessible 24/7, it has also made us the least social society in the world. Technology threatens to prevent leaders from spending quality time with their followers. Quality time means undivided attention, yet we routinely see people send an email instead of walking 30 feet to talk in person. And how often does your boss check email while you’re trying to give an update? It’s disrespectful and you’re left wondering if your message really got across.

Quality time is one of the hardest love languages to master, but you can make a change. Adjust your communication PACE plan:

  • Primary: Face-to-Face Conversation
  • Alternate: Phone Call
  • Contingency: Text Message
  • Emergency: Email

The impersonal communication methods are ok for groups, just not individuals. Text messages that coordinate many people or quickly inform them are good. Giving a subordinate career advice via text is bad – better to schedule a face to face chat.

It’s also important to remain accessible to your subordinates at the worst times. While this seems counterintuitive, leadership is all about being in the right place at the wrong time. You may hear, “Sir/Ma’am I know your super busy but do you have a moment?” Take a second to address the question or at least gauge the severity of the problem. Remember what Colin Powell said:

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems
is the day you have stopped leading them.”

“Leadership” Love Language #3: Receiving Gifts

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes. Some cost money and others do not. For instance, most of us arrive in a new unit greeted by the S-1 asking for “cup and flower fund” money. The time-honored tradition of paying for your own going away gift is something that you can effect in your organization. Leaders can instead develop creative and memory-filled gifts that have meaning.

Gifts are more than a plaque, statue, or static line from your last jump. Gifts should embody an emotion of heartfelt thanks and appreciation from leader to subordinate. How many books do you have on your shelf just collecting dust? How about digging out a classic like Company Command by John Meyer or The Challenge of Command by Roger Nye to give to one of your up and coming young lieutenants. Books are powerful and can leave a lasting memory on someone every time they pick it up.

Visual symbols of appreciation mean more than you would think. Next time you walk into someone’s office, take notice of the items hanging on their wall. Now ask which one means the most to them. Some would say the guidon from their company command; others would say a coin that they received in front of the entire unit. The key is to find out what matters most to them, and deliver. You can also check out these suggestions from The Military Leader:   7 Gifts for a Military Leader and the Roman Rudis.

“Leadership” Love Language #4: Acts of Service

When you hear the word service, many folks in the Army would immediately think of the Army Value of Selfless Service. Although selfless service is important to our core, it does not express the leadership love that Acts of Service does. It is counter-cultural to serve your subordinates, but look for small acts of service that can make a big win.

How many times have you helped set-up the command post tent with your team? Or do maintenance checks on the vehicles? Or police call the unit area? Rolling up your sleeves and actually serving your subordinates can go a long way.

As a Lieutenant in Afghanistan, I was lucky enough to experience a surprising Act of Service. During an 8-day battle, my Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major flew out to visit our location in the middle of the night. When they touched ground, we gave them an update on the enemy situation and the status of our personnel and equipment. What happened next forever changed my view of Selfless Service and what it means to live by “Leadership” Love Language #4.

They both covered the radio watch the entire night so that we could all get some well-deserved sleep and refocus on tomorrow’s action. It did not demean them in any way, but instead made the Soldiers and I want to work even harder for them.

“Leadership” Love Language #5: Physical Touch

There are many forms of physical touch. One of the most common forms is the handshake. Historians believe that handshakes derived from ancient Greek culture where two people would ensure they did not have any daggers up their sleeves. Today, we might not be shaking hands to check for weapons, but we still would like to initiate communication with the other person. The handshake is a leader’s way of initiating one-on-one communication with the other person. In a group setting, handshakes are the scene setter and show respect for everyone in the group.

Handshakes build trust between individuals. A recent YouTube video went viral showing unique handshakes between a teacher and his students. The handshakes themselves are less important than their meaning. The teacher used the flashy handshakes to build trust between him and the students. In the same way, leaders can extend their hand, greet their Soldiers, and ignite the fire within.

Practice, Practice, then Practice some more

Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows that it takes lots of time and repetition, but the results are worth it. Pay attention to reinforcing the “Leadership” Love Languages you already understand, then try engaging in some others. Look for leaders who display the languages you’re not adept in and seek their counsel. 

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

Christopher Manganaro is an Army Officer who has served at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of the military. He also authored Misunderstanding Military Millennials.

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  • Janz011

    May i know when was this updated?

  • Justin Liesen

    This is a great application of the 5 Love Languages. The ideas from that book have been great for my marriage. I can imagine it can work wonders for leaders.