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What Esther Perel and Great Leadership Have in Common

What a visionary couples therapist can teach us about the hearts of people

Last year I had the opportunity to meet Esther Perel and hear her speak to a group of therapists. Her book Mating In Captivity and her two viral TED talks, and now Audible podcast series are capturing audiences across the globe for their honest, modern-day relevance to relationships. Besides her ability to speak frankly about historically charged topics, there is another reason why Esther has become a sensation: she embodies tantamount characteristics of true leadership.

Like Esther, great leaders:

1) Listen deeply to people

Of course this is the job of all therapists. The distinguishing characteristic of Esther and good leaders is that they listen with a voracious curiosity to understand the people they interact with more and more deeply.

2) Help them see what they don’t

When someone can compassionately hold a mirror up for us and help us see our strengths, and the obstacles that hold us back, that is a true gift. A leader will do this as a good therapist does: in hopes of seeing us breakthrough and grow…not as a mechanism to grow the bottom line.

3) Give people hope, especially when they have a hard time accessing it

One of the reasons Esther has been so lauded is that she is providing a new language to replace old (and often damaging) stories we have internalized about intimacy. These new ways of looking at age-old topics are providing millions of people with hope that we can forge new ways of being. A good leader must understand what is in the minds of her people, but also pull up to find new perspectives to share.

4) Are human, vulnerable, and emotionally accessible

When we let people see us as fallible, feeling, and authentic, they tend to feel more connected and committed to us. One of the great fallacies of leadership is that vulnerability is a weakness; in fact, it is a strength. Esther, who has reached fame she likely didn’t strategize for, shares herself in appropriate ways that develop human connection and relationship. Take episode 3 of her Audible series, where she actually sings in French during a therapy session. The key here is that sharing parts of yourself are done in ways to help others grow, not for your own satisfaction.

5) Provide facts

Leaders must act, and inspire others to act as well. Charisma can carry a leader part-way, but is often over-rated and over-sought. Providing people with facts and information that helps them understand the why and how, cements hope into commitment. It is the breadth of facts and information in Esther’s first book that gives her credibility and spurs readers to commit to the hard work of change in their relationships.

6) Give tools

If information creates commitment, tools create action. Esther is a leader who has not only spent her career learning about the inner workings of people in relationship, but has developed a set of tools for people to help themselves. This is key to good leadership- you can’t hold the keys and expect your team to drive.

7) Create conditions for success

Therapists provide a space for us to learn more about ourselves so we can grow and heal. Unlike a friend who may be well-intentioned in verbally bashing our ex while not calling us out on our own role in a failed relationship, a therapist works to create conditions for success. A leader will do this by providing direction, information, and tools, and then checking in to assess how that is progressing. They don’t stand over our shoulder to make sure we are doing everything their way. If it is not working, they adjust course, relying again on curiosity and learning to better support the path forward.

8) Push boundaries

Esther pushes boundaries over and over again. In Mating In Captivity, the last chapter introduces an important, but likely controversial theme. In her second TED talk, Esther gives new perspectives on infidelity, often taking the concept of blame and shame off the table as she strives to understand the why more deeply.

9) Know it isn’t always sexy

Just like relationships aren’t always sexy, neither is leadership. It can be lonely, it can be messy, it can be tiring, and it can be disenchanting. Like Esther points out in her book, keeping eroticism alive in a long-term relationship requires certain shifts in behavior and mind-set, so does keeping your leadership fire ignited. Strategic breaks from the work of leadership can re-ignite your passions for the work. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

10) Know it’s all about relationships

Above all else, Esther knows that meaningful relationships are critical to thriving. And a great leader also knows that people, above all, are the most important part of the work.

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