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MIT Executive MBA

Leadership

How a “loving” leadership style can transform organizations

By

Naji Gehchan, EMBA '22

My mission to bring compassion to healthcare leadership was shaped by growing up in war-torn Lebanon. Watching Red Cross first responders work in dangerous conditions to help others, I was inspired to go to medical school and join the Lebanese Red Cross as a rescuer volunteer and team leader. During that time, there were many moments that shaped my leadership mission, however one in particular stands out.

It was 2007, a time of heightened terrorist activity in Lebanon. One afternoon, we received a call at the Red Cross asking for emergency assistance in a busy area of Beirut. While this was our job, the thing that made this call stand out was that we were asked to wear helmets and bulletproof vests. We quickly understood we’d be going to a scene of a massive bombing.

The next seven hours were grueling, but they also were transformational. I saw the power of leading people. As a first responder or doctor, I could help one patient at a time. As a leader, I could amplify my impact and help hundreds of people.

Experimenting with a new leadership approach

My leadership journey continued as I pivoted into the pharmaceutical industry, where I lead teams to impact patients around the world. A few years ago, I had another transformational leadership moment. I discovered the power of a compassionate or a “loving” leadership style.

At the time, I was chief marketing officer and business unit leader, and we were working on intense product launches and digital transformation. Not surprisingly, tensions arose among our teams and communications broke down. I had always thought that if we trusted each other, things would work out. But things were not working out. Trust can be questioned.

Reflecting back on my leadership abilities, I thought about that bombing. My team not only followed me but risked their lives to do so. Why did they do that? We shared a purpose and values, but we also loved each other. I knew that if something happened to me, they would be there for me and my family, and they knew I would be there for them too. That goes beyond trust – it is genuine care about each other as human beings.

In the present situation, the missing factor was about more than trust. It was love. From that point on, my priority became spreading love in the organization. At first, people thought I was crazy. I think they finally believed me when I stood up in front of 200 people at the company and announced that spreading love was in fact my priority.

Over the next 18 months, that priority transformed the organization. People opened up to one another and were more genuine in their discussions. They were more authentically themselves. We cared about people as individuals and encouraged them to be themselves. This created an entirely new culture, which opened up new ideas, led to great internal innovation, and delivered strong results.

Continuing the experiment

Along my leadership journey, my desire to make a bigger impact grew. I came to the MIT EMBA to learn how to make that happen, enhance my managerial capabilities, and build a network of other leaders wanting to improve the world. I also learned frameworks for driving change, including how to conduct small experiments that can have a significant impact (like deciding to prioritize spreading love).

During the pandemic and period of social unrest, I wanted to make sure people knew I genuinely cared about them. For the second time, I announced that spreading love was my priority. This time, it was amplified instantaneously. People craved this type of message of hope, love, and community.

Setting the priority on spreading love led to a lot of positive changes. We made significant progress in our work on diversity and inclusion. We had healthy discussions about topics we previously were afraid to talk about. We launched a reverse mentoring program. If you genuinely love people and tell them what you authentically think, they will likewise be more open with you, and everyone will thrive and work even harder towards the common purpose and mission.

Making a bigger impact

At MIT, I thought about how I could take this mission of spreading love beyond my organization. I was ready to make a bigger impact. After all, I had been learning about leadership and management and had the tools and network to do more. I just needed to figure out what to do.

Brainstorming with my MIT executive coach, my mentors, and my partner, led me to the idea of a podcast. I wanted to showcase real-life examples of leaders in healthcare who had spread love in their organizations and seen amazing results. By sharing their stories, I could inspire other leaders to change the world one story at a time.

A few weeks later, my wife and I produced our first podcast, Spreadloveio.com. At first, we planned to have one episode a month, but there are so many people with inspiring stories to share (often from within the MIT community) that we ended up with a weekly show. We now have more than 2,000 downloads per episode and rank in the top 10% of most popular shows globally!

The MIT EMBA is helping me apply frameworks to my beliefs and connect with amazing leaders and executives who share my values and passion for “loving” leadership. I am humbled to be part of this community that is reinventing the future.

Naji Gehchan, EMBA '22, is Global Brand Development Leader for Global Oncology at Eli Lilly in Cambridge, co-founder of Sohati and spreadloveio.com

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