Leadership as the possibility of another world // A conversation with Tim Leberecht (Part 2)


You claim that Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson or the late Steve Jobs from Apple are romantic heroes, characterized by an aura of mystery and emotion.

 First of all, we must not renounce the concept of heroes. We need them to embody our desire for an ideal state, constantly reminding ourselves of the impossibilities of human life. Heroes are the messengers from another, better world. But we are no longer looking for heroes just at the leadership level, and they also don’t have to belasting and flawless figures. In an economy that is increasingly based on collaboration and cooperation, individualistic, lone warriors are becoming obsolete. Instead we need leaders who can inspire others and create space for their dreams and passions. We need heroes who enable others to be heroes, as the management thinker John Hagel put it.

 "The main task of managers is to achieve results, and to realizethe purpose of their business." Do you agree with this?

 This is too narrow for me. Results are, like everything else in business, floating moments that dissolve quickly. And what really is the purpose of the enterprise? Shareholder value? This concept appears more and more limited, especially since introduction of the “Triple Bottom Line” (profit, environment, social responsibility).

Companies are the most important social institutions of our time. They shape our identities, in no small measure, and they are sense-makers. Knowledge workers spend up to 70 percent of their waking hours with work. “Work is where we make or break ourselves,” the American poet David Whyte observed. Business leaders and managers have a unique opportunity to act as makers and arbiters of meaning, maybe even as “healers.” Leaders don’t need to know more than their employees. But they must know what they don’t know and hire people who know more than they do. The best leaders are brave (and smart) enough to admit their own vulnerabilities.

So, what distinguishes a manager from a good leader?

A good manager gets the best version of its employees. A good leader transform his or her employees into entirely new people.

A good manager defines, specifies, and sets an example. He or she listens, motivates, and manages to unleash the potential of their employees and grow it. A leader, on the other hand, opens eyes and hearts to new experiences. A good manager gets the best version of its employees. A good leader transforms his or her employees into entirely new people.

 It seems that the principles of business romanticism may be easier for someone who enjoys a great deal of autonomy in their job to realize. Is that a fair assessment?

Without a doubt, autonomy is crucial for applying the principles of Business Romanticism. But the notion of autonomy can take various shapes. While most of the protagonists in my book are knowledge workers, one doesn’t have to be a start-up entrepreneur, senior executive, or a freelancer to instill one’s work with moments of romance. And what does autonomy mean anyway? The self-employed freelancer might enjoy a considerable amount of flexibility in terms of his or her daily schedule but is also expected to respond to clients at any time, which is actually infringing on the level of autonomy in his or her personal life. A CEO might have the power to determine how he or she spends his or her time and make decisions but is also constrained by his or her stakeholders’ often conflicting agendas.

 You quickly realize that autonomy is relative, and in the context of Business Romanticism it is perhaps more helpful to think of it as the feeling of autonomy. Just as constraints are critical for spurring creativity and innovation, they are also the romantic’s secret weapon. Recurring, seemingly mindless tasks might represent the “little bit of suffering” that the romantic welcomes in order to find the sacred in the profane, to transcend the here and now with a belief in a greater truth that might reveal itself through the very commitment to one monotonous task.

 This is the kind of ethos that craftspeople exhibit in their work, from the chef to the cobbler. There is a beautiful scene in the movie Locke where a construction manager — while his whole life is unraveling, including being fired — passionately insists on his moral obligation to get the job right: because the “small cracks” in the “pure” concrete can bring the whole world down, as he assures himself. I actually googled “C6 Concrete" after watching the movie! There is beauty in everything, we just need to find it. It doesn’t so much require autonomy over the task but autonomy over the way we view our work and frame our own narrative about it. Now, you might consider this a naïve thought and accuse me of “romanticizing.” Right on. That’s precisely my mission.


This interview is based on a translation of the author’s being interviewed by Alexandra Hildebrandt for the German Huffington Post (“Fels sein und Wasser”), augmented with additional original content.