Is The Future of Business Romantic? Donald Trump vs. Tim Leberecht
We confronted Mr Leberecht with quotes from Donald Trump’s 2007 bestselling book “Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life”
Donald Trump says, “It’s not personal, it’s business”, but in your book The Business Romantic you argue that, actually, it’s through the personal that success in business can be found. What would you say as a counterpoint to Trump?
Business is extremely personal. The products and services we buy define and connect us. At work, we see our colleagues more often than our friends or loved ones. In our Western societies, we spend up to 70 percent of our waking hours working. That’s a lot of moments between the top and the bottom line that can add up to a fulfilling life—or not. Work is where “we make or break ourselves,” as the poet David Whyte wrote. It’s where we show our true colours, where we seek meaning, and where we shape our identities, and to a large degree, the narrative of our life.
Strangely, though, we have divorced business from the full expression of our humanity, from our emotional and spiritual needs. We view the ideal business person as the rational decision-maker and the cool pragmatist. Inconsistencies, ambiguity, and impulsiveness are out. Tears—the epitome of intense emotions—are taboo. In business, we pursue a very narrow concept of human behaviour. That comes at a high cost. Trust in business leaders is low. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, only 13 percent of employees worldwide are fully engaged. This is even more concerning in light of research that shows that intrinsically motivated workers regularly outperform those who are driven mainly by extrinsic motives. So, to me, there is no question: Business is personal, and it must be even more personal if we want to make it more humane.
“The world is a vicious and brutal place.” How would you counteract the opinion that the world of business can be cutthroat and ruthless – what can we do to make it less so?
It certainly can be vicious and brutal, and I’ve had my own share of experiences, especially with certain private equity investors. But that’s precisely the reason why we need more romance in business. It’s easy to retreat to inner exile or become cynical at work, and check your heart and dreams at the door. It is so much harder to stay engaged and commit. With business becoming so pervasive and such an influential framework for our lives, we must find a way to carve out spaces for experiences that instill a sense of wonder into our commodified, standardized, and quantified professional selves.
“In truth it’s a cruel world and people are ruthless. They are nice to your face but underneath they’re out to kill you.” There’s a sense that people you encounter through work are purely self-interested. What’s your opinion on this?
Self-interest is a powerful force, no doubt, and it is neither good nor bad per se. Ever since Maslow’s pyramid, however, we’ve had a more nuanced understanding of human motivation. We also know about the desire to transcend pure self-interest and belong to something greater than yourself, whether that is pursuing a collective cause or the deep satisfaction we derive from altruistic giving. Viewing humans as merely driven by material gains and self-realization, motivated by greed, represents an overly simplistic, mechanistic model of human behaviour. We are capable of the most atrocious things, but we’re also capable of enormous acts of generosity, love, and beauty.
In my book, I’m pinpointing experiences like the Pay-It-Forward phenomenon: Take the Suspended Coffee movement where people purchase an extra coffee and then leave it for a homeless person; or the stunning example of a Starbucks drive-thru where customers ordered an extra coffee for the person behind them and the whole thing turned into a chain of giving that lasted for several days. On social media, too, we can find plenty of phenomena of collective giving and viral generosity. I’m not saying there isn’t a lot of wheeling and dealing. But even at the heart of the narcissist ‘selfie-economy’ lies a genuine interest for the other. In every ‘shitstorm’ on Twitter you can find a moment of unexpected beauty. In every transaction awaits a meaningful interaction. You just have to look closely.
“Even your friends are out to get you: they want your job, they want your house, they want your money, they want your wife, and they even want your dog. Those are your friends, your enemies are even worse! My motto is “Hire the best people and don’t trust them.” Trump is, admittedly, rather cynical about the kind of relationships you can develop through working life. How do you think these kinds of business relationships need to change?
Oscar Wilde put it best: “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Cynicism is the déformation professionnelle of the modern manager. Remember Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street? “When you need a friend, buy a dog.” The cynic is the enemy of the romantic, and it’s also the enemy of creativity and innovation. A culture of pre-emptive disillusion and deep mistrust might deflect disappointments in the short term, but in the long term it’s a very costly attitude that hampers sustainable success in business and in life. Nothing lasting or beautiful was ever created out of cynicism. Cynics are free riders of the true believers. In the end, it is the romantics, with their excessive supply of imagination and love, who support the cynics.
“When someone crosses you my advice is “Get even!” Drawing on your book, how would you advise someone to respond to a work disappointment, or a betrayal?
Defeats and betrayals form our character more than our victories. When we are victims of disparaging remarks in meetings or humiliating power plays, we have a choice: we can retreat or engage. When we retreat, we lock away our most private desires. Every time we disengage, a small part of romance dies. When we engage and make ourselves vulnerable, however, we continue to love.
Easier said than done? Here’s a trick: In moments of defeat, I compartmentalize into “old self” and “new self,” and when I get hurt or disappointed I view the part of me that got hurt immediately as “old self,” while my “new self” has already learned from the experience and moved on.
“Getting rich is tough, and people get hurt. You have to be as tough as nails and willing to kick ass if you want to win.” For Trump, achieving financial success and staying friendly are mutually exclusive. Would you agree?
I would agree that getting rich is tough! But what do I know….
As an observer I don’t think that only jerks can get rich. People like Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson or Tesla’s Elon Musk strike me as good examples of billionaires with strong vision, great intentions, and high levels of integrity.
This is not to say that you need to be everybody’s darling. Visionaries have their enemies. But especially in an age of radical transparency on the web where leaders can no longer hide, values-based leadership has become imperative in order to secure trust and legitimacy in the long term. I just don’t buy that kicking others around is a sustainable value proposition. Even Uber is realizing this and now cozying up to regulators and the broader public. I refuse to believe we live in a world of predators, and even if we I did I would want to take it on with vulnerability as my main ammunition and the romantic belief that another world is possible.
“A prenup is not the most romantic thing to do, but you really need it.” What are your thoughts on the occasions where business and financial concerns cross over into the more personal world of romance – for example a prenup.
Well, this commodification of everything is one of the drivers of the great disenchantment that I’m bemoaning in my book. Economic principles have invaded the most private aspects of our lives, and tit-for-tat thinking and a transactional mindset have become common ingredients of our personal relationships. And now we’re even quantifying, optimizing, and maximizing our happiness as if it was a purely economic asset. “When you quantify love, you get prostitution,” the economist Rafael Ramirez told me.
At the same time, it is important to remember that the concept of romantic love, and in fact, a marriage based on it, is a fairly recent accomplishment of civilization. For centuries marriage was an economic proposition, and in many cultures this is still very much the case.
In a market society like ours, relationships will always be underpinned by economic considerations, and they are naturally prone to commercial exploitation by one of the two parties (or a third party, as is the case with much of our personal data). Under the mantle of the share economy we’re now even monetizing sharing—one of the most genuine human acts. Perhaps the only remaining true love occurs between parents and their children, siblings, close friends, and, in fleeting moments, in altruistic acts toward strangers. There aren’t too many spaces left for it. True love is inherently romantic in that it is unreasonable and excessive. It defies logic as well as any attempt to quantify or economize it. It gives without expecting anything in return besides a sense of wonder. It is the bulwark against the regime of the second machine age, the ultimate retreat for our humanity in a world of maximizers and optimizers.
“Never do anything for money. Do it for love.” Surprisingly, this is a quote from Trump. Do you think, at the heart of it, you and Trump perhaps have a more similar way of thinking than may be obvious at first?
Haha, Donald, let me give you a hug! This shows that a disappointed romantic hides behind even the most sardonic cynic. Romance is a deeply human trait and a strong, raw impulse that manages to cut through all the rhetoric that would suggest otherwise. Romance is at the heart of our yearning for more meaning. It gives us hope. I firmly believe that our world would be a better place if romanticizing was not dismissed as something negative. 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!
This interview first appeared in the Spring issue of SC Exhibitions Magazine (download PDF).