How to Speak Your Leader’s Love Language

I’m on a blogging sabbatical to write my upcoming book. This is a guest post by Steven Ibbotson. Steven has served as a teacher and administrator at both K-12 and post-secondary schools. He also serves as a board member with various non-profit organizations. He sees and writes about leadership lessons in everyday life experiences at Life & Leadership (

The directors did not know what else to do? They had given their CEO plenty of verbal affirmation… and well deserved too! He had been going 100 miles/hour since his first day on the job, serving in pretty much every way imaginable. Whether it was washing tables after a fundraising banquet, managing the organization’s budget, coming alongside long-time volunteers to fit in where he could with their work or implementing new and strategic programmatic initiatives and recruiting new volunteers to work in these programs, the new CEO seemed tireless. 

The leader was skilled at working with people of various ages from the school-age children to the senior citizens, and in a few short months had become well-connected to those inside the constituency and many new contacts in the larger community. When he gave his regular report at the directors’ meetings, there was always much to affirm.

The board members tried to give the CEO feedback as requested on areas related to future planning and it seemed such input was genuinely appreciated. The board was aware of a couple challenging issues and they were seeking to address them, though perhaps not as quickly as the CEO would have desired. Nonetheless, the board and the local constituency were truly shocked when he submitted his resignation.

As the board talked with the leader trying to understand his accusation they were unsupportive, he commented, “I don’t want you to think people haven’t been very encouraging. I’ve had lots of appreciation for different things. But people’s praise doesn’t matter to me. I want to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people.”

And that’s when the light went on:

These director’s did not know their leader’s “love language” (see Gary D. Chapman, The 5 Love Languages)

The organization had a history of having high expectations for a leader, sometimes unreasonably so. In recent years, they had made conscious efforts as board members and among their constituents to talk about speaking and acting graciously towards the leader. They had talked about when to offer criticism (i.e not right after the major fund-raising speech) and how to say ten times as many positive and encouraging words before offering their perspective. The most recent CEO served seven years and felt well affirmed by both the board of directors and the constituency. He moved on to serve another similar organization that was closer geographically to his family.

After a CEO search that took just over a year, the new leader came with strong relational skills. He quickly became loved by the people and they gladly told him so. Yet they should have saved all their encouraging words for a leader who’s love language was verbal affirmation. They probably could have showered the leader with thoughtful cards or birthday and Christmas gifts too… it would not have mattered. “Quality time” and “acts of service” were his love languages and everything else was just polite gestures, at best, and empty hypocrisy, at worst.

So how do you find out your leader’s love language?

  1. If you have not read Dr. Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages, purchase a copy and review the book. It will not only help you understand your leader, but possible others on your team. (Of course, family members and other close friends might appreciate your new expressions of appreciation too!)
  2.  Ask the leader’s significant other his/her love language and then find small ways to begin celebrating successes that directly connect with his/her love language.
  3. Watch how your leader “rewards” the behavior of the staff… this is either a good indication of his/her love language, the recipients’ love language, or maybe both. Watching how different people respond to the same reward helps you identify a person’s love language too.

It may mean a gift certificate to a restaurant or a financial bonus is the best way to celebrate the end of a successful academic year for a college president who values gifts. Or it may simply be public recognition at the annual commencement exercises of the president’s leadership. The board may ask the CEO to join the international work project on site at the organization’s expense (and not as “vacation” time) after a successful fundraising campaign for the leader who values acts of service. The options for expressing a love language are endless. Yet not finding a way to connect to your leader’s love language could be immeasurably more dangerous!