Heart Intelligence: How to Love your Way to Innovation, Creativity, Connection and Community

When I was in graduate school, I read bell hooks on love and pedagogy. “Teachers talking about teaching as a loving interaction,” I thought, “very dicey stuff.” But it was the stuff that resonated for me. I knew—and not in my head, but with my mind, the seat of which is my heart—that, through teaching, I was trying to create more loving communities and that teaching in and of itself, was a loving endeavor. Years later, I worked at an organization whose mission was to create more loving communities (no, not the stated mission, but that was what we were doing) and every time I talked about the importance of engaging around the creation of a more loving work community, I lost credibility.

Fast forward a few years and you’ll find me networking, connecting, exploring my next professional iteration. I’ve taken lots of meetings, in which I present myself as a humanist, writer and strategist who works from a place of ability and strength, longing to do so within the context of a loving environment.

Most organizations are pretty excited about this. They say things like,“Perfect! We’re looking for employees who are curious, who can generate excitement, who are keenly aware of and can skillfully work within a dynamic organizational culture.” They tell me, “we want folks with creative intelligence (if you haven’t, you should read Bruce Nussbaum’s book on the topic), who can collaboratively problem solve, but also think outside of the box.” I’ve heard, “we want employees who can make us laugh, who are smart, human, authentic AND vulnerable. Don’t forget, you should know that you don’t know everything.”

What I learned during that expedition is that businesses are looking for a certain and unnamed thing. They want to work with folks who embody that thing because these kinds of folks can help them build culture, relationships, work, product, etc.. That thing is what I want to unpack here. What is it? How can it be helpful? Why do we want it and where is it?

For now, I’m calling that “thing,” heart intelligence. It’s an embodied intelligence, so there’s no need to measure it. It’s a technology of sorts—or what Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics calls a “techne,” a knowledge of making or doing (as opposed to a disinterested understanding). So, it’s not theoretical knowledge (theoria) which resides in your mind and is reserved for discourse. It’s not practical knowledge (praxis), which resides in “direction” and is about doing. Techne resides in your body and is about making. Heart Intelligence is a techne, it’s an embodied knowing and, with it, I argue, one can communicate and innovate, lovingly.


Heart intelligence is an activated knowing, a wisdom, characterized by:

  1. Compassion: the belief that people ARE doing the best that they can do (even if we think they are not doing enough). Compassion is also the understanding that we are, all of us, seeking connection;
  2. Generosity/Open-Heartedness: a commitment to being collaborative, accountable, hard on issues and soft on people;
  3. Vulnerability: as Brene Brown defines it, “daring to show up and let yourself be seen—instead of sitting on the side lines and judging;”
  4. Curiosity: contemplating what people think, feel, why they do what they do, why you do what you do, how you can, together, support mission (Scotty Mclennon—at the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford talks about the importance of curiosity).

I tried these ideas out last year at a conference in Chicago and discovered the following:

  1. People were scared to talk about love.
  2. My colleagues were more animated and more curious at this panel than I’d seen them be at any other panel in six years.
  3. During the course of this conversation, we didn’t reference theory or practice but talked about love as a craft that could transform organizational culture and support innovative collaboration.

So, heart intelligence—the techne characterized by compassion, warm-heartedness, generosity, vulnerability, collaboration and curiosity—is a rich and nourishing place to explore. Folks are scared of it, but also have a lot of enthusiasm for this “thing,” that can transform workplace and workplace practice.

Case Study: Justin Bieber

My kids love Justin Bieber. I do too. In fact, I pawned my wedding rings to purchase tickets to his 2012 concert (this is, I’m afraid, a different post). So, I’ve been following him very closely in the news this past year.

I understand that people have their own ideas about JB. But, if you can suspend your ideas for a moment, I want you to imagine you’ve been hired by his team to work on content strategy (brand advocacy, customer loyalty, etc..). Consider how and why you would tell his story. How would you utilize your heart intelligence to develop questions and find solutions that you might not otherwise access?

Activating heart intelligence, you might ask: why do people hate him? Why do they love him? What is happening to him? What will happen to him? And what does that tell us about our culture?

Conversation regarding these questions would emerge in the spirit of compassion, connectivity, being hard on issues and soft on people, knowing people do the best they can (so without blame), authentic curiosity (without an outcome already in mind).

You haven’t, of course, actually been hired by JB’s team, so I don’t know the answers to those questions, but we might develop more effective questions on which to base his story:

· What are the impacts of his actions on our youth (not solely how do we sell more effectively to youth?)?

· Where is he and what is he capable of, given his situation and our cultural context (not, how do we get him to stop acting so crazy?)?

· What is “good,” for him and what is “good,” for his customers (in addition to how do we make more money?)?

· What kinds of knowledge do we need to make available to both him and his customers to ensure that goodness happens(how do we make good things happen in the world)?

· Who are these customers, what are they consuming (gossip, for example) and why? Is that “damaging or helpful?”

The point of these questions? Well, if we can open ourselves up to them, we may discover that content strategy, brand, customer loyalty, social media and story can do more than increase revenue and/or credibility. Approaching these tools and issues through heart intelligence can also help us build healthier and more loving communities—and work communities. The bottom line is multiple—money (yes, this is why we’ve been hired) and love. And maybe at some point we can address that money issue in a way that is more open-hearted as well.

Look for my next post on what I learned when I pawned my wedding rings to purchase Justin Bieber tickets!