Leadership as the possibility of another world // A conversation with Tim Leberecht (Part 1)

Why do we need more romance in our working life? A conversation with Tim Leberecht, author of the book “The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself” about the importance of romance in modern management and the possibilities of leadership.

Isn't the modern style of management more comparable with the Enlightenment: rational, objective, measurable?

Following the axioms of the age of reason and enlightenment, modern management is bent on constantly reducing the space for the unknown, on the basis of an objective, empirically proven truth. “We can only manage what we measure”— for many managers this formula has become the last safe harbor in an increasingly complex world. In contrast, romantics want tomake the space for ambiguity, the space fpr immeasurable, non-comprehensible as large as possible. For them, doubt and opacity are more important than total knowledge and radical transparency. "I will not reason or compare: My business is to create," as the 18th century poet William Blake once wrote. Romantics want to feel more, and business is their ultimate adventure. 

In fact, I would argue that romance is the ultimate differentiator in a world of optimizers and maximizers. When every company is doubling down on perks and purpose, romance is “the third place” and can make the difference.


They celebrate ambivalence, contradiction, the principle of hope. Many mangers scoff: "Hope is not a strategy"" Wrong"! Hope is the best possible strategy for it is the greatest instrinsic motivator and a powerful tool for getting others onboard. In fact, hope is an economic necessity, and so are aura, mystique and emotion. Without them, a company and its brand will become soulless automaticism — and rather easy for competitors to copy. As I write in my book: if you can engineer it, it's not a brand.

Why do you think that feelings areso important in business?

 We have divorced business from many of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. With The Business Romantic, I propose that we broaden our perspective and bring our full selves to work — not just as hyper-efficient productivity machines, but as the enigmatic and struggling individuals that we are. We must reclaim the language of business — which has infiltrated so many, if not all, aspects of our lives — and expand the common vocabulary of efficiency and productivity with new definitions of what it means to do business together, to be in a good company. Emotional intelligence, a happy workforce, and meaning should be the end, not the means. Every company faces the same two challenges: how to attract and retain top talent; and how to create products, brands, and experiences that people truly love. I believe that romance is a powerful way to address both.

 In fact, I would argue that romance is the ultimate differentiator in a world of optimizers and maximizers. When every company is doubling down on perks and purpose, romance is “the third place” and can make the difference. I’m talking about the adrenalin rush we experience in moments of unexpected challenges that remind us of our full potential and make us feel fully alive, and the fascination of cultivating our professional alter egos or meeting strangers. It’s these hints at the possibility of another life that create romance.

 Unlocking the potential of Business Romantics at work is hugely valuable: Romantics usually dream big dreams AND get things done. They form strong bonds and show real commitment; not just passion that might flame out after a series of passion projects. They build a more collaborative, humane culture that will ultimately be attractive to customers. By humane I don’t mean nice or friendly, I mean intense and all-in, a culture where everyone is vulnerable and has skin in the game. A culture where everyone is constantly striving for significance, permanently unfulfilled but motivated by the possibility of greater meaning. Romance gives employees and customers a reason to commit and re-commit every day, but it also provides something that is perhaps even more important: a sense of meaning and delight that goes beyond the usual market mechanics. It will not only make companies more successful but also our lives as employees and consumers more fulfilling.

Romanticism was a counter movement to the Enlightenment, the age of reason. Do you recognize parallels in a world of new information tools that analyze and quantify?

 Our networked era inevitably leads to quantification and automation. In the not too distant future, our very identities will be little more than data profiles that are always one step ahead of our sensibilities and intentions. Others will know us better than we know ourselves. And then there are of course virtual and augmented reality technologies going mainstream, as well as the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence, with all the possible consequences.

Unlocking the potential of Business Romantics at work is hugely valuable: Romantics usually dream big dreams AND get things done. The form strong bonds and show real commitment; not just passion that might flame out after a series of passion projects. They build a more collaborative, humane culture that will ultimately be attractive to customers.

 Intelligent machines will be able to think clearly — but will humans still be able to feel when our lives are governed by algorithms? We must defend the freedom that allows us to be imperfect beings. We aren’t just machines that provide accurate results. We are social beings and feel attracted to companies because they are messy, vital forums for social exchange and open-ended experiments. A fully automated, process-driven, predictable economy will quickly become inhumane. We must once again learn to appreciate what we can’t measure. Therefore, we need a new romantic movement — rich with mystery, ambiguity and emotion — to protect the obscure and unpredictable against the regime of radical transparency, frictionless performance, and total knowledge. How can we use new digital technologies for enchantment? Is the second machine age the last one or the first one to actually give us a “third place”?

Why do we need surprises in business?

At the workplace, surprises revitalize and strengthen the existing business culture by reminding us of what’s possible and that we’re not really in control. They nudge us, awaken us, and create moments of authenticity because what we feel, in that very moment, is truly genuine and unfiltered. Surprises play an increasingly important role in the customer experience, too. Most customer experiences are designed for convenience and comfort; but unexpected disruptions that challenge our cognitive models and preconceived notions give us the greatest joy and meaning. In a New York night club called “The Box,” for example, customers who have bought the most expensive tickets find themselves in the kitchen doing dishes.



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About Tim Leberecht

Tim Leberecht is the author of the book The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself, and the founder of The Business Romantic Society. An internationally reknown management and marketing expert who focuses on digital and organizational transformation, he has spoken at TED, DLD, The Economist, and the World Economic Forum, among other events, and writes for publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, and Wired. Leberecht serves on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Values. He was born and raised in Germany and lives in San Francisco.