When I left the Navy to enter the private sector, my older brother asked me if I had a good boss. I told him, “yes”. Then he asked me how the company was doing and I told him “great”. He laughed and told me that I would not know if my boss was good until business was bad.

Fortunately, she proved to be more than a good boss. However, the stresses of the current economy are revealing the deficiencies of many American bosses: hasty decisions, cutting jobs rashly, or showing significant lapses in character. Five to ten years ago, for instance, the pharmaceutical industry was facing major changes. Blockbuster drugs were bringing in massive profits but the patents were marching toward expiration. Managed care insurance was making it more difficult for doctors to prescribe what they liked. Middle managers and field representatives saw it coming and tried to pass it up the chain. Senior executives ignored it. In many cases they even expanded their workforces in order to appease Wall Street. Now they talk about making tough decisions and “optimizing” their cost-effectiveness – even though this could have been achieved through normal attrition and hiring freezes. As a result, morale in this industry is at an all-time low.

My father’s generation built a corporate culture that led America to unbelievable levels of success. In these tough times we need inspirational leaders, not wardens overseeing a chain gang and getting productivity gains by starving the prisoners. What is the secret formula for leadership, for getting people to move mountains with enthusiasm?

My one-word answer, after 13 years and eight bosses in the business world, has often raised eyebrows. But I have seen it work time and time again – love. Inspirational management books in airport kiosks talk about leadership as if it were a special gene, something you are born with, not something you learn. Others treat leadership as a skill which is divorced from the rest of a manager's life. This is all wrong. At the center of all good management and leadership is love — esteem for others simply because they are persons, not because of what they have to offer.

Great leaders look at two things: the mission and the people they work with to achieve common goals. Mediocre leaders view people as resources to be exploited. Great leaders view them as persons, as cherished members of a team. Great leaders may make you happy or they may tick you off, but you trust them. Why? Because you realize that they know who you are.

Managerial love is not a Machiavellian tactic. While it’s better to have a boss who sends birthday cards than a grouch who threatens to fire you, he may still be manipulative. Do birthday cards work? In the short-term, yes. However, there is no unified purpose; no common understanding of each other’s wants or real inner motivations. The superficial harmony fractures under stress.

How about an example? My two teen-aged daughters are very good competitive swimmers. Because we have moved home so often, they have experienced several coaches and coaching styles. Their current coach is the best yet. Because of their very different personalities, she coaches them very differently. She never says that there is only one way and everyone on the team should “get on the bus”. As a result, each of them had personal bests this season.

Being person-centered is different from being a “people person”. A person-centred leader identifies his employees’ strengths and help them build on those strengths. Only after trust is established – a gift that many business managers never experience – can they help them improve.

Consider this scenario. A highly competent sales professional has exciting new ideas. But she knows that her boss won’t listen to anything which is not part of a script which was written ten years ago. When he goes out on the road with her, she puts on an act. She visits long-time customers and she follows creaky processes. The boss is thrilled and so is she – when he has disappeared. Now she can get back to doing things the way she thinks best. That is dysfunctional leadership. Why? The boss wants conformity to a script, not adherence to reality. When he rewards her and praises her, he thinks he cares about her. But the truth is that he has stuck her in a pigeonhole. As a result, his employees exclude him from important aspects of their work.

Knowing your people is crucial to successful leadership, but the leader must also direct his people towards the common goal. Without that, a caring manager is just another nice guy. People respect a leader who helps them do their jobs better. Once they realize that you understand them and want to help them, there are three possible outcomes. They may respond and improve. They may decide not to respond. Or they will respond, improve, and begin to look at you as a person, too. That is when great things can really start to occur.

If love is the cornerstone of leadership, it must not be a platitude. It is not someone simply telling someone that you feel their pain, or empty words to that effect. Those with whom we work are gifts. It will rarely be noticed by others but, over time, you will move from being a “company man” to a person who changes people’s lives as well as their performance.

Dan Hoffman is a sales manager in Florida and Georgia.