“Love Builds Up”​ from Soren Kierkegaard

We’ve all had experiences of getting annoyed by people around us, whether at home or at work. And, we’ve probably come across some of the popular leadership notions that if we claim to be an “emotionally intelligent” leader, then we have to have a “positive attitude.” Well, Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, had a jump start on emotional intelligence theory when he philosophized that the real source of a “positive attitude” is an ethic of love taken personally in our everyday dealings with other people, in his Works of Love (Trans. by Howard and Edna Hong, Harper Perennial:New York. 2009).

Love Builds Up

If we find ourselves annoyed by a co-worker or a family member, first we should look at ourselves and ponder it. By contrast, Kierkegaard says, “If any person has ever spoken to you in such a way or acted toward you in such a way that you really felt yourself built up, it was because you quite vividly perceived that he presupposed love to be present in you.”(p.210) Perhaps that annoying family member or colleague is the very person that needs your mentorship. Perhaps, their annoyance is really a cry for help or friendship from you or others you can put them in touch with. Kierkegaard continues, “Love builds up by presupposing that love is fundamentally present”(p.208). If we do as Kierkegaard suggests, and assume some level of love for my co-worker or my family member, then it is that very assumption, that very ‘leap of love,’ which now becomes the basis for a relationship in the first place. However, what if we don’t care about that relationship or we’ve come to just plain distrust another’s motives? Then, Kierkegaard says, “Mistrust takes the very ground-level away by presupposing that love is not present; therefore mistrust cannot build up.” (p.209) We are at our worst, even unbalanced, when we are critical of others or purposefully annoying them. Kierkegaard advises, “To tear down is the opposite of building up…Only too easily does tearing down satisfy the sensual man.”(p.208) We cannot help someone we don’t trust or don’t forgive;we certainly cannot lead them, because it would be very hard to have a “positive attitude” with someone whom we have no basis for a relationship.

 

The Emotionally Intelligent Person “Builds Up”

We can make a connection from Kierkegaard’s thought to modern leadership theory. According to Dr Travis Bradberry, author of Leadership 2.0 (TalentSmart:San Diego, 2012) he says, “Self-awareness is a foundational skill: when you have it, self-awareness makes the other emotional intelligence skills much easier…as self-awareness increases, people’s satisfaction with life–defined as their ability to reach their goals at work and at home–skyrockets.”(p. 135) Bradberry says, if we have personal competence, then we’ll have the social competence necessary to improve relationships. Why do we need to improve relationships? If we are annoyed by someone at home or at work, that should be a pretty good indicator that that relationship needs some work. According to Peter F. Drucker, in his “Managing Yourself” article from Harvard Business Review (Harvard Business Review Press.:Boston, Massachusetts. 2010), he says, “Managing yourself requires taking responsibility for relationships…the first [responsibility] is to accept the fact that other people are as much individuals as you yourself are…”and, “the second part of relationship responsibility is taking responsibility for communication.”(p.27) All individuals are unique. As the German philosopher Max Scheler says, “Humans are ‘world-open'” and not simply “beings-in-the-world,” but spiritual beings who can make their own judgements, even beyond the cosmos and themselves (The Human Place in the Cosmos. Trans. by Manfred S. Frings. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, Illinois. 2009). Scheler says, “…only the human being is able to soar far above his status as a living entity and, from a center beyond the spatio-temporal world, make everything the object of his knowledge, including himself.”(p.33) Given this perspective, we should have some pause if we have a tendency to stereotype others, at home or at work, and realize their individuality is as profound as ours. Given what Drucker said earlier, “taking responsibility for communication,” can be seen as building others up as well. We need to communicate our intentions frequently and that will convey our genuine concern for them. As Dr. Bradberry says, “Let your people know that you are looking to help them advance their careers by fully capitalizing on their strengths and stretching their knowledge and skills.”(p.246) Love builds up by communicating.

 

Love As The Foundation of Everything Good

Kierkegaard’s philosophy of love draws from 1 Corinthians 8-13. He comments on the famous 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient,” by this it builds up, for patience specifically means perseverance in presupposing that love is fundamentally present.”(p.208) Patience with someone who annoys you at work or at home is to think continually the best about that person, to not give up on them, to persevere in seeking and finding their good qualities, as difficult as that may seem sometimes. Perhaps one may even, at some point tell them, at the right time, those qualities that you appreciate about them. Kierkegaard continues, “Love bears all things,” for what is it to bear all things but in the long run to find in everything the love which is fundamentally presupposed.”(p.209) As a leader, at home or at work, according to Dr Bradberry, “You become the mechanism by which your organization [or family] breathes life and connects with its people.””Every day you balance being human (talented and flawed) with serving as the most visible vessel for the organization.”(p.205) Leaders have to sacrifice and bear all things.

Kierkegaard regards the penultimate example of this “building up” to be the father of the prodigal son. He says, “In spite of the son’s misguided conduct there was no break on the father’s side…; he hoped all things; therefore he, in truth, built up through his fatherly forgiveness, since the son vividly grasped the fact that fatherly love had carried through with him and that there had been no break.”(p.209) Kierkegaard concludes that to love and to “build up” are essentially the same, if you love, you “build up” the other person; if you “build up” that other person, it is because you love them. He continues, “Love believes all things,” for to believe all things means precisely, even though love is not apparent, even though the opposite is seen, to presuppose that love is nevertheless present fundamentally, even in the misguided, even in the corrupt, even in the hateful.”(p.209) Acting this way is the foundation of trust, the foundation of love, the foundation to build upon. Kierkegaard, in his very Existentialist way, then says, “But what, then, is love?” “Love means to presuppose love; to have love means to presuppose love in others; to be loving means to presuppose that others are loving…Let us understand each other.” (p.211) Who will seek to understand the other if the leader does not?

Whomever seeks understanding is a leader, because he first “builds up.”

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