A conversation with Tim Leberecht, author of The Business Romantic
What are the three most radical changes coming to the business world in the next, say, 10 years that you’re most excited about?
As with all radical changes, I’m both excited and worried about their potential. The single most impactful trend will be dehumanization. I know, this sounds rather apocalyptic, but hear me out.
On the one hand, artificial and super-intelligence will become mainstream and radically change the very fabric of our societies and identities, enabling us to implement automation, machine learning, and predictive computing at scale. Artificial intelligence will no longer be called artificial, and it will be seamlessly embedded into our daily routines and interactions. In 10 years, it’s highly unlikely that I will still formulate and manually type responses to questions like this.
Furthermore, maybe not in the next 10 years, but, say, in 20, most of us will be unemployed in the traditional sense (I highly recommend this recent piece by John Havens on the need for a new definition and social recognition of “unemployment”) and work only either as artists or as “human ingredients” in algorithmic businesses that need a human touch for purposes of differentiation. Apparently, architects only have a 1.8 percent likelihood of being replaced by machines, so there is some hope for cross-disciplinary and highly creative professions. But overall, the enhanced, hybrid transhuman will become a reality. Being “purely” human will either be the ultimate luxury, the new “authentic way of being” for the one percent, or the stigma of an underprivileged and underserved minority.
The other vector of dehumanization I see is, unfortunately, a further radicalization of our societies, fueled by growing social divides, climate change and natural resource scarcity, unemployment, dysfunctional or over-burdened (supra-)national institutions, nationalism, and religious extremism. The current potential for catastrophic conflict are alarming, but I like to believe that we can still reverse course, intervene and create better models of governance and collaboration. Against this backdrop, the most important opportunity and responsibility for companies—which are arguably the most influential organizations of our time—will be to help design a more humane society. And I mean the “humane” quite literally. Business must understand and protect what makes us inherently human and create space for human consciousness, emotion, and empathy—at the workplace and in the marketplace.
Should everyone be a “business romantic”—is it an equal opportunity employer or mainly for a “certain type.”
Everybody can be a romantic, and everybody probably is at least a bit romantic—even the bitterest cynic. Romance is at the heart of our yearning for more. It gives us hope. It essentially means to imagine new, better worlds, and without that imagination no innovation, no progress will ever occur. Only the romantics bring us forward!
With my book, The Business Romantic, I want to show that while romance is a world view and a lifestyle, it can also be a powerful framework for business. It helps organizations identify and empower their romantics, and it gives romantics in organizations the courage and the language to self-identify and to rekindle their romantic spirit and ignite it in others. Romance is a choice, but it must be cherished, trained, and protected. We need build romantic “muscle”—and that’s what my book is trying to do.
Why do businesses need the mindset of the business romantic now and going forward?
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—that 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’s 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.
How did you come upon your idea of the business romantic—did you always have this bent or did you learn it through experience?
My entire career has been in marketing and communications, currently as the CMO of NBBJ, an architectural design firm, and prior to that as CMO of the product design firm Frog. The most romantic job I ever had was with the Olympic Torch Relay prior to the 2004 Summer Olympics, when I traveled with the flame as a press chief. It was intense, all-consuming, and a transformative experience.
I’ve had other romantic experiences in my professional life, for example, my first “real job” was in music, playing in a band and releasing two albums. Now I no longer write songs, I write emails, memos, marketing plans, and presentations. But in a way I’m still singing my heart out. I often feel like an outsider, like an alien in business. I’m suffering, thriving, and constantly longing for more. I am inconsistent, unreasonable, and even obsessive. Business is a way for me to express myself and engage my full self, meeting my emotional and spiritual needs. It is a vehicle for finding some greater truth, a great adventure, maybe the last great adventure of the human enterprise.
In short, I am a Business Romantic, and I believe there are many others out there: card-carrying business romantics, closet romantics, and cynics who secretly envy us romantics for our ability to fall in love with ideas, with a project, and the world at large again and again: to connect with all of them I wrote this book. Consider it the manifesto of the Business Romantics!
I love how you held up Wordsworth, Keats and Byron as great examples of innovative business people. Let’s pretend they were alive today, what kind of business do you think they’d be in?
[It would be funny to imagine the 21st century business, “Wordsworth, Keats & Byron” J]
Ha! I love that. “Wordsworth, Keats, and Byron” would definitely make for a great partner-based firm, maybe a new type of management consulting? Although I’m not sure if anyone would really want Lord Byron as boss – he’d give HR a conniption!… J My initial thought was that the romantics would of course be designers or other creative types, but then I realized that they might be far more intrigued by data and technology in this day and age, so I can see them in a virtual reality start-up or another data venture with a romantic bent. Or, who knows, they might find their adventures in venture capital or private equity. Romance is not the privilege of B-Corps or “conscious capitalism” companies.
A lot of people don’t always connect to the idea of bringing their sense of adventure and heart to work. How do you mentor or council people you work with to nurture that part of them?
In my book, I propose ten “Rules of Enchantment” that give business leaders and employees specific tools to “hack” their day-to-day routine and create small pockets of wonder and attachment in order to infuse their workplace and customer experience with more romance. It’s all about building romantic habits into our work routines and thereby changing one’s own experience and by extension that of colleagues.
The rules range from the importance of micro-interactions and intimacy (“find the big in the small”) to generosity (“give more than you take”) to distortion, rebellion, and curiosity (“be a stranger”) to vulnerability and pain (“suffer a little”) to mystery and secrecy (“keep the mystique”), nostalgia (“take the long way home”), and solitude (“stand alone, stand by, stand still”).
These rules are not based on typical business case studies, and they don’t attempt to problem-solve; they won’t provide silver bullets, and productivity is not their only goal. Instead, they will challenge you to seek out new perspectives, to value your own idiosyncratic intuitions and emotions, to embrace conflict and friction, and to celebrate your humanity. They will help you lead a more wonderful life in and with business.
I have also founded The Business Romantic Society as a community that connects people who want to humanize business and are experimenting with unorthodox methods and practices. We host dinners and workshops together to stimulate an exchange and develop new ideas. Finally, I have launched the Romantic 100 campaign: it is my quest to bring romance to 100 companies over the next 12 months, and so far my visits to Airbus, IBM, or UPS have shown me that there is a huge desire for more meaning and emotional richness at work.
Do you notice that there’s a personality type that shows up in teams that’s good at bringing the romantic to the group?
Not really. You can be an introvert or an extrovert, a quiet or gregarious person. Romance is not just for leaders, but whoever brings it to a team will be a leader. But, admittedly, those with an “elastic mind” that can bend it into all kinds of direction, those with a rich “sentimental education” that has taught them to appreciate the elusive wonders of art, beauty, and poetry, have a headstart.
Assuming—and I could be wrong—that every so often you might hit an existential funk of sorts—how do you get yourself re-enchanted?
Zoom out and elevate yourself, literally. Create some form of novelty. It always helps to board a plane and fly to a new destination you’ve never visited before.
It seems like the “algorithm” is the new rock star. What are the pros and cons of this?
Well, the problem is that the algorithm isn’t exactly a rock star. Rock stars are charismatic and erratic. They are fascinating because they are unpredictable, enigmatic, and hard to read. They offer us space onto which we can project our own hopes, dreams, and desires. That’s the exact opposite of the algorithm whose modus operandi is to grasp, analyze, and reorganize everything so it becomes manageable, standardized, and predictable.
The perils of a myopic belief in algorithms have been well-documented, from Douglas Rushkoff (“algorithmic battleground”) to Charles Handy (“algorithmic society”). Handy nails it when he wonders what it does to our sense of identity when others know us better than we know ourselves—which is the ultimate consequence of an algorithmic society.
Like him, I am worried that we increasingly outsource our humanity: there are now not only apps for doing pretty much all of our chores; there are also ones for “speed room-mating,” reigniting romantic feelings amongst married couples, or even automated break-ups. If all of our memories, sentiments, and dreams are stored and analyzed, we will no longer be able to think “outside the cloud,” outside of algorithmic predictions, outside our recorded and projected intentions, our augmented quantified super-self. Ultimately, we are human because we are unpredictable, because we make errors, because we can’t be trusted.
How do we make all our code and data and burn down charts work with our inner business romantic, even bring it out?
In the book, I portray a middle manager in a highly quants-driven retail firm who is truly passionate about his spreadsheets and views them as a beautiful tool to bring some meaning to, to restore some order in the world. To me, he is an example of the power of a romantic mindset: if you are open and trained in seeing the world with “fresh eyes”—the quintessential romantic proposition—then you will find meaning even in the seemingly mundane. In that sense, being a romantic is a choice. (On a more playful note, a woman I had hired to help me with the book campaign sent me her invoices as small haikus within Excel charts, and it always made my day.)
There are so many creative ways to use data and technology in a romantic way, and for me that is precisely the opportunity ahead. It would be foolish to be against data or technology. I’m not a Luddite. As Frederic Laloux writes in Reinventing Organizations, the most important innovation in this century won’t be a technological one, but a social one: What are the design principles that cherish the best of our our humanity and enable us to live, work, and play together in peace and prosperity? As part of that quest, data is everything, and everything is data. The question is how we want to us it: to demystify or to mystify? To narrow the playing-field or to broaden it? To equalize difference or to celebrate it? To optimize the existing space or to create a third place?
Already, there is some tech that romanticizes. The app Somebody, for example, lets you verbally deliver text messages through strangers. 20 Day Stranger, developed by MIT, allows two people to share their experience of the world—anonymously—over the course of 20 days. Or think of Brian Eno’s beautiful visual and music app, Bloom; the Draw Something app that brings people together online to draw; and the Look Up project, which attempts to engage users in creative ways that go beyond mere distraction and consumption. And there is even a School of Poetic Computation in New York.
All these apps and services open up spaces for imagination rather than trying to minimize our personalities to patterns, and our actions to neurons. One could argue by the way, that virtual and augmented reality are indeed the new technologies of a new romantic era: like the traditional romantics, they make the familiar strange again, allow us to try on another identity, and provide us with access to parallel, unknown worlds.
Uncertainty is part of life yet, let’s face it—a lot of people hate it. How do you help people make friends with uncertainty even if their jobs demand exactitude?
Having grown up in engineering-minded Stuttgart, Germany, the home of automotive companies like Daimler and Porsche, uncertainty is not exactly in my DNA. I had to learn to tolerate and even embrace uncertainty, if that is at all possible. My seven-year tenure at Frog Design taught me some great lessons in that regard: not only was our business uncertain by design (the backlog, as is typical for creative service firms, was more or less volatile, and the foresight capability somewhat limited), but the culture was rich with ambiguity, too. Just because you had the title CMO didn’t mean you had the license to operate as one. You had to be the water, not the rock, and constantly adapt to the vagaries, hidden truths, tacit rules, and ever-changing dynamics of the organization.
What helped me navigate this environment was to consider certainty an illusion. Markets move fast, and organizations are more complex or at least expose their complexities more than ever before. Institutional truth is losing its authority, and at the end of the day the only remaining (and questionable) certainty you have is yourself. So one option you have is to impress yourself with your convictions, your values and principles, and your rituals and habits, and make a mark in the maelstrom of uncertainty that you face every day as a professional, taming it by naming it, by framing it for yourself, and your own story that you’re in the process of writing.
Uncertainty, combined with an ability to reduce it a bit every day, is a powerful motivator. It’s the essence of entrepreneurship, and we need more of it in our organizations. Would you get up and go to work every morning if you knew exactly what was going to happen? I wouldn’t. Without uncertainty, without risk, life is not worth living. It’s good to remind yourself of that whenever you find yourself being anxious in a zone of uncertainty.
From an operational viewpoint, it might help managers to appreciate uncertainty as the source of all innovation. Some processes must be standardized and routines, but even in the most process-driven firms, creating “white spaces” for open-ended exploration with uncertain outcomes, is crucial for provoking new ideas and thinking.
Which historical person (or persons) would you most like to start a business with?
My dream team: Walter Benjamin, Pele, Coco Chanel, and Peter Drucker.
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t spend too much time thinking about the advice of others. They’re mostly projecting their own fears and hopes onto you.
Tim Leberecht is visiting Australia for the first time in March/April 2017. Click here to find out more and register to hear Tim in person.