Making Distance Beautiful
An interview with Tim Leberecht about the House of Beautiful Business, new leadership, and intimacy in pandemic times
Kaj Lofgren, Head of Strategy at Small Giants Academy, speaks with Tim Leberecht, the founder of the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.
KAJ LOFGREN: I feel like I have to start with the obvious question of where do you find yourself now and how are you coping with 2020?
TIM LEBERECHT: It just will not end, won’t it? It’s been a rollercoaster ride. But we’ve been so privileged, at least most members of our team. I live in Berlin, and our competent government has really helped contain the virus. It’s an interesting moment in time right now. When it all started here in Europe in March, it was a very schizophrenic experience. On the one hand it was really terrifying and a lot of people really worried about their livelihood and business of course. And their health. But at the same time it also produced this beautiful sense of solidarity. And it was amazing how it was possible to mobilise millions of people and actually change their behaviours quasi overnight. I think we all realised that it is possible to live a smaller life. I think there was a new essentialism. At the same time a new desire to be better. A friend of mine said a few days ago the thing that really matters is we just have to be better once we come out of this. There was a sense of possibility in that it was the end of so many paradigms and narratives and systems. It was like this implosion and this real juncture from which we could depart into new territory. I feel a bit sad because we’re still in the pandemic, we’re back in second lockdown. I think we’re realising it’s not a temporary phenomenon. We have to live with the virus for quite a while. And at the same time there is this desire to rush back to normalcy, which is completely understandable. But I wonder if we’ve squandered an opportunity to actually undertake some more radical reforms.
Mm. It’s a wonderful reflection. I’m speaking to you from Melbourne which is under some of the harshest lockdowns in the western world right now. 8pm curfews and one hour outside of the house per day type stuff. But I also feel that there has been a genuine reflection, at least in my network, and I think more broadly, that it’s the most extraordinary act of love and solidarity, not an act of fear. I read a little bit about you in the process of thinking about this conversation. And there was a metaphor that just jumped out. You said, “we can think of work in organisations as less like machines and more like a garden that we can tend to and play in.” It’s a wonderful reframing of this machine metaphor that we’ve been using around organisations for a long time. Can you talk to me about that just as a starting point?
Yeah. I’m completely intrigued by the idea that organisations are not machines. And I have to say as a preamble I am very much the opposite of a nature boy. If you were to sort of haunt me with a nightmare it would probably be hiking and camping out! So it’s funny because whenever I’m confronted with that notion of organisations being gardens, well, what do I know about gardens? Up to nothing. But I think what I’m really opposed to is this mechanistic model of business and in fact our society that has been the ruling paradigm basically ever since the enlightenment if you will. It’s this binary world view, cause and effect, black and white. Basically you’re looking at governance, at society, as business as a machine. There’s stimulus, there’s an in port and there’s an out port. And then in between there are productive forces that translate power to some kind of product at the end creating growth. I think that’s really becoming obsolete. But the crisis has really shown us that this binary thinking and mechanistic thinking is obsolete. The German philosopher Tobias Rees wrote a beautiful essay arguing that we’re leaving the anthropocene. So the era of the human at the centre of all things and the summit of evolution, and we’re entering the “microbiocene” as he calls it. A world in which we recognise that the bacteria, the fungi, the viruses, they are in us. We are a pond among ponds. We’re no longer able to separate ourselves from nature, which has been maybe the original sin of our modern society. So if it’s true that we’re no longer living the anthropocene, then maybe we should stop talking about the humanisation of work, and explore the biologisation of work. What does it mean to actually be a natural organisation? What does it mean to be an organisation that not only caters to human needs and factors but also to nature, and possibly to other stakeholders such as AI or other forms of intelligence.
Mm. It’s such a visceral wonderful metaphor because it does challenge so many of the sort of implicit or unconscious assumptions we have about the world of work and what we do in our organisations and how they’re organised. There’s both an unravelling process happening and then a need to remake it again.
Totally. It’ll be interesting to see how daring leaders can be. There is this natural tension between having to restore some stability, and an inclination to just go back to the basics.The whole economism and bottom line thinking might just come back in full force. If that’s the case, if there’s such urgency, then the last thing you want to think about is how can I retool my organisation and redesign it as a garden. Even though knowing that that might be the much more viable path going forward. I think organisations that have the luxury and the capacity and the mindset to do both, to restore and create, and think ahead and use this opportunity to really radically redesign parts of their organisations, reorient at least, they’re probably going to be thriving in the future.
I like the thought that the crisis we’re in is really just an amplification of a whole lot of issues in our society, right? It’s not a creator of them. It just puts a magnifying glass on them. And one of the big ones that you have spoken about is this idea that particularly in leadership we strive for certainty and confidence and structure and process. But the idea of embracing doubt as a virtue is also something that has come through in the way you’ve spoken about leadership. That talks to the moment quite strongly as well.
Doubt is such a fascinating concept. I mean just imagine Mark Zuckerberg had more doubt. The problem is that some of these quote unquote “visionaries,” leaders, particularly in Silicon Valley big tech, which is arguably the driving force and really reshaping the world more than any other segment of our society right now, doubt is not necessarily an issue that they have to cope with. I think there is such a confidence in what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism” so that there is indeed a hammer for every nail or a nail for every hammer. It doesn’t really matter how you want to put it. But there is an engineered solution for any problem. There is really no doubt as long as you have the data. And that’s the world view that I find very irritating to assume the data presents some form of objective truth that would then mitigate any form of doubt when in fact doubt is probably one of the key qualities of any leader. Because that’s the beginning of self reflection, that’s the beginning of innovation in a way. Or that you question things. Including yourself. You do not have the answers and you don’t have solutions. It’s interesting how Jacinda Arden spoke of being kind and listening, leading with your ears rather than with your mouth. And still being an assertive servant leader. Or Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona who proudly said of herself that sometimes she doesn’t have a solution, she needs more time.
Such an interesting concept and again just flies in the face of everything we’ve absorbed through our work and our education. I do want to talk about your book, “The Business Romantic.” There are ten rules of enchantment at the heart of the book. I found myself responding with like a cynical knee-jerk reaction of, “I don’t know whether this is going to work” and then being drawn in, “of course!” They feel almost essential. Particularly given the forces that are at play in the world at the moment. Are there are a couple that jump out at you as a taster for people to imagine what the book is all about?
Yeah. One is about intimacy and how different intimacy is from emotional intelligence. Intimacy is a much more tender, raw way of connecting with other humans. And essentially what makes us human is intimacy. Machines are not capable of intimacy. Intimacy means that we make ourselves vulnerable, that we can be heard. We’re facing this huge crisis of course of loneliness and social isolation. The average American has only two close friends and those numbers are very similar in many European countries, many parts of the western world. Although we’re more connected than ever through digital technology, there is this pandemic of loneliness. At the core of it is intimacy. It’s not about just being connected to people for the sake of being connected to people but it’s actually having intimate relationships with other people. Whether that is friends, romantic partners, colleagues, but emotionally intimate relationships really make us thrive and recognises the full beings, who we are. One rule of enchantment is to create an environment at work in which it is possible to experience intimacy. We have introduced silent dinners. To have a silent dinner with colleagues and to not talk for 90 minutes is so powerful. Another rule of enchantment is mystery. Begin with mystery. Don’t give everything away. Radical transparency is not the ultimate solution for everything. So many organisations think if I’m just radically transparent then I’m good. It’s really important that you don’t share everything and that you withhold, and that you allow space for mystery where things are not explicit, are not explained. It shows us that there is another truth out there, that there is another perspective. And it’s an adventure that we’re basically in.
I love that one. It’s so deeply connected with the nature of trust and maybe even faith. You talk a lot about the digital and the technology revolution. And then of course there’s the climate emergency. How do you position the idea of beautiful business in the context of all of those forces?
The one thing that I know with the House of Beautiful Business is how important it is to touch people’s hearts. And when we host our annual gathering and people come and they leave the house transformed, then they go back to their organisations maybe with more hope, maybe with a feeling that change is possible, that they can be somebody else, that their organisation can be different, that there are other truths, other perspectives they should consider, not to overstate it but that is at least the beginning of something. I was just talking to someone who has been working with social movements for a while. And she said, change is a wave. And it’s about every single drop. We create experiences, one of our attendees called it an ocean of intimacy where people are gently pushed out of their comfort zones to experience a new world. We’re basically modelling a new world by changing the world for four days. Like any form of art. And then we invite people into this new world. And what they do with it is up to them. But I do believe that hope and connections, small scale and new insights, especially when they’re with people who have the means to then also make decisions and change business, that yes, perhaps in a modest way they can contribute to us rethinking how we relate to the environment. Rethinking whether a binary worldview and mechanistic model of organising work is still appropriate and to rethink the relationships in how we want to treat people.
It speaks to one of the things at the Small Giants Academy that we are really intrigued by is the interconnectedness between the internal personal transformation that’s required in this moment combined with the systemic change that needs to happen outside of us. Sometimes we have to really show people that is the case. That you’re not only doing your internal work because it’s good for you, it’s also good for the world. And you’re not only doing the systems change because it changes the world, it also changes you. I’m curious as to some examples of organisations that you’ve encountered, that come close to fulfilling some of these ideas in a practical way?
Danone, the foods company, was privy to some of the transformation work that they had done with the new CEO Emmanuel Faber in charge. And I was really impressed by how genuine it was. And also how they involve when they created their purpose manifesto, which is often such a buzzword. But I think they were real about it in that food as a human right and really deliberately thinking about what this ambition means for all of their products and their materials, supply chains and not being perfect. But really being genuine and serious and intentional about how they’re implemented across their organisation. There’s also the usual ones like Patagonia with an incredible leadership culture. And I think also some of the startups that are zebras, rather than unicorns, there’s this new movement called zebras. So basically black and white but not in a sense of binary, sort of a dual agenda. So serving the shareholders and growing but at the same time also serving the environment and society as a whole. And just having a less aggressive stance that is not about exponential growth. I think when it comes to beautiful business, some interesting ideas also on the table, for example, by Nathan Schneider who’s been a longtime advocate of platform cooperatives. The idea that company startups, when they axe it, that they release their assets to a community that they’re part of, in which they’re embedded, rather than just maximising shareholder value for some of the owners. So a radical new way of rethinking organisation. Another one is steward ownership where the organisation or purpose organisations, where basically the organisation is owned by a cell and just basically committed to serving a certain purpose or mission. And that’s the goal rather than, again, maximising shareholders. So I think those are pretty radical ideas. And they are beautiful in such that they’re bold and imaginative. And I think just redefine value in a much more radical way.
It is beautiful. I was also struck by that idea of stewardship. The question of time in all of this. And so often our critique of business is around shareholder focus, short term returns. There’s that classic often quoted how long stocks are held in our current market compared to five years ago and ten years ago, and I think it’s down to the seconds now of how much or how often shares are traded. The work of Roman Krznaric recently with “Good Ancestor,” I’m not sure if you’ve read that one yet. Roman found some wonderful work on long term thinking. And in the context of business that’s obviously fascinating to go from ownership to custodianship or stewardship. And what do you do therefore with the share market and with stocks? There’s some interesting terrain to navigate there I think.
Absolutely. Time is interesting. I mean there’s sort of one aspect to this is the short-terminism versus long term perspective. There’s also Eric Ries’ idea of the long term stock exchange that rewards really long term performance rather than short term quarterly earnings which is also somewhat interesting. And we need to look back and learn from the wisdom that’s been with us for thousands of years maybe to have a long term view. One member of our community, Jonathan Cook, held a really beautiful talk about that in one of our online living room sessions a few months ago. That with quantum thinking entering mainstream, there is no cause and effect reality. We’re talking about entanglement in multiple layers of reality. His notion was that time too is not linear. We’ve had a very mechanistic view of time, particularly in business. Maximising time, extracting value from time, when in fact time is very subjective. It’s not objective. And it’s interesting to think about organisations operating in multiple dimensions of time. Maybe there’s a short term persona and there’s a long term persona and they have different modi operandi. Or also in a sense of well, let’s operate a different speed and pace. Sophie Devonshire has wrote a book about this, “Superfast,” where she’s exploring, when does an organisation need to be slow? When does it need to be fast and for whom and with which consequences? So I guess overall just to have a much more sophisticated, nuanced, multilayered concept of time would change so much. And it brings us back to the garden metaphor as well, right, where I think when you interact with the garden, that really reminds you of your own subjective time experience.
It’s interesting how we in the west use language like quantum, which we’re going to need an entire series to unpack, it’s not going to happen today. But First Nations wisdom in Australia at least is very much geared in different perspectives on time. Exactly the way you described. And so I’m often reminded that in these conversations about what comes next in business or in our economy often is found rooted in some of our very old wisdom.
Absolutely. And the coronavirus crisis too was a moment when time was frozen in a sense. It really made us aware of the subjectivity of time. And once you’re lucky enough to make it our of the lockdown there is this very expected moment of acceleration again. We had a one living room session where we asked people about the new narrative and what they would want to get out of the crisis and carry forward. And I think the one thing that really trumped everything else was just slow down. It wasn’t even about specific ideas. It was just like, let’s just slow down. Let’s just be silent together. Let’s just take a breath. And stay in that state for a while. Without that voice in your head saying oh God, need to go back and produce things and have an impact. So the desire I think is still very profound. And I just don’t know how to satisfy it.
Which is a nice segue to something we’re really passionate about: how do we build new types of education to allow leaders to walk into a next economy environment? To lead from that place when all of our old institutions are still geared to produce outcomes that we are railing against. How do you think about leadership education or business education?
The whole leadership development field is definitely undergoing massive change. If we want to produce more servant leaders, more enlightened leaders, beautiful leaders who lead with all those qualities that we had talked about, then that education needs to change. It’s probably going to be a mix of experiences. In our retreats it’s about really pushing people gently out of their comfort zone. I think what is also really interesting is for leaders just to connect with other worlds. This can be in the form of reading, engaging with the arts and the humanities, meeting people who are absolutely not from their field. And maybe not at the same level of seniority, which is also something we do with the house. We don’t have name tags so you see a CEO talk to an intern or a student. They don’t really know who they are. And the conversation would be very, very different if they were aware of their social status, power and all the credentials that come with it. One thing we also do with clients is that we ask leaders to write. So we have programs and at their end we ask them basically to give talks. So we gently force them into articulating what their vision of leadership is. Like what’s the impact you want to have in the world, what their purpose is, what they stand for, just pick one point of view. And writing that down and delivering it as a promise, in public to your staff or a global audience is very powerful. It’s almost like this initiation, this birth moment for any leader. It’s speaking their truth. So it’s a mix of different experiences, being exposed to other worlds that are radically different from what they usually experience. Then it’s really about translating that into some kind of written output or spoken output. They cannot hide behind spreadsheets or business plans or strategy plans, but actually have to write. They have to write their truth. I think it’s a big, powerful catalyst.
So the Great Wave festival is coming in mid October, yeah?
October 16th to 19th, yep.
What are your expectations? What do you want from it? How would you wake up on the 20th of October feeling like you nailed it?
First of all I want to wake up on October 20th! That’s the number one goal is to survive this onslaught of 500 hours of content of people all over the world. It’s a huge experiment. Very open ended. I think what we’re doing is just to try and put a lot of energy into it and allow people to put their energy into it as well and then we’ll see what will come out of this huge global laboratory. So it’s a four day event, it’s built on the arc of a wave. First day’s called formation, second day is immersion, third day is integration and the fourth day is flow. And we have designed a program that is essentially a hybrid experience that’s combining Zoom meetings, WhatsApp groups, Linked In conversations, 3D worlds with field trips and in person encounters in cities where it’s possible. And small local gatherings in more than thirty local hubs and cities worldwide. What I would love to see is that we manage, or that the community that’s assembling, that we manage to create a sense of belonging and community and intimacy even though we’re coming from very different parts of the world, even though this is to some degree a fragmented experience, right? We’re not all connected in person in the same room. And not even in the same portal online. It’s going to be a multi-layer, multi-modal experience. I think it’s an experiment to see whether we’re able to create the same kind of connection that we usually create in person at our annual gatherings. The second thing is, as I described earlier, it’s this moment at which we globalise the house where we really become inclusive. Everybody can buy a ticket. You had to apply just due to limited capacity in person in previous years. Now there is no limit. We want to see thousands of people join and co-write the playbook of beautiful business and connect and build on the ideas that we present at the beginning. So hopefully this will be a moment which generates a lot of hope. And a lot of energy and a lot of momentum, and people going back to their organisations and their work saying, “This has been really a transformative weekend. And in some way it showed me how to rethink my leadership, redesign my organisation, but maybe it’s also a precursor of how we’re going to work in the future,” because the way the experience that we designed in some ways maybe that resembles how we’re going to work. Different worlds, different media, different platforms. Being able to create intimacy over a large distance, making distance beautiful as one of our tech lines goes. That is the experiment.
Learn more about the House of Beautiful Business and Great Wave Festival here.
This interview was first published by Small Giants Academy.
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan