Why The Future Of Work Might Belong To The Romantics
Tim was profiled and interviewed on leadership, millennials, and a new need for enchantment
Challenging conventional business wisdom, leadership pundit Tim Leberecht shows why being human at work might be the secret to a productive and meaningful career.
“You’re not innovative enough? Maybe you’re not foolish, nor romantic enough about imagining the possibilities of another world. Your customers don’t love you? Give them more than just solutions to problems. Your employees are not inspired? Maybe purpose and perks do not suffice. Add some mystery, some adventure to the mix. Use data not just to demystify, but also to mystify” nudges passionately marketer-turned-author Tim Leberecht. It’s a sunny mid-August day and we are at The Conference – a knowledge experience for the digital-savvy in Malmö, Sweden.
Leberecht, a 40-something German native who now lives in San Francisco, is a friendly man with soft verbal style and a broad smile. His first book, The Business Romantic, came out only a few months back, but has already taken him to conferences around the world including TED and The Economist’s The Big Rethink. The volume makes an emotional case for cultivating humanistic attitudes and behaviours at work.
To the growing concerns about the disruptive impact of technology on work, business and society he responds with an alternative scenario: a romantic yet sustainable economy driven by vulnerable and empathetic leaders and employees on a mission to find real meaning in work. “There is a strong economic incentive for romanticising our workplaces and cultivating experiences of friction, conflict, mystery and ambiguity at work”, he muses passionately. Bringing these emotions to work, instead of parking them at the door, would challenge and surprise the employees who, in return, would respond with higher levels of engagement and productivity.
“Tomorrow’s business leaders must be able to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, and business graduates need what Flaubert called ‘sentimental education’.”
– Tim Leberecht
In the near future, he argues, the drivers of workplace productivity will be directly related to leaders’ capacity to embrace and leverage their human traits: vulnerability, modesty, tolerance. The worrying disengagement with work – affecting over 70 percent of employees worldwide (according to a 2013 Gallup survey) can be counteracted only by a radical shift in the current work paradigm.
As his timely ideas are gaining traction, establishing himself as a singular thinker, we catch up to discuss how cultivating vulnerability will change the face of business in the near future, strategies for coping with an increasingly insecure future of work and what does it take to “romanticise” a company.
Bold Ideas: In an article you wrote in June, titled “If we want more human work, it will be less productive” you argue that “we will only thrive if we keep investing in what makes us inherently human: vulnerability, empathy, intuition, emotion, and imagination.” How will cultivating these skills change the face of business in the near future?
Tim Leberecht: In the near future, we will see the battle lines harden between the need for efficiency and the desire to create beautiful organisations that offer work and cultures rich with meaning. On the one hand, the pressure for “lean and mean” will increase; on the other hand, a growing number of people—first and foremost younger generations such as Millennials—will demand more meaningful work and no longer be content with conventional definitions of work and career. Moreover, leaders will recognise the importance of “soft” aspects such as perceptions and emotions as critical success factors in business. A recent Fortune survey showed that more than 60 percent of executives believe that purely rational, pragmatic decision-making will no longer suffice given the unprecedented complexity of today’s business environments. There is a growing realisation that while we spend most of our time in business on the hard facts, the soft factors might in fact be more decisive in determining the success of a project or an entire organisation.
Experts forecast that up to 50 percent of jobs in Western societies might be replaced by machines within the next 10 years. At the same time 50 percent of the jobs what we’ll have in 2025 don’t exist yet, according to a CBRE/Genesis report. So what we call ‘work’ will undergo tremendous changes, and the deck will be reshuffled entirely. This is a great opportunity to reclaim work as a vehicle for social exchange and expression, as an art, and not just a science; not merely a profit-making material necessity, but a romantic enterprise.
“What we call ‘work’ will undergo tremendous changes. We will have to redefine productivity, or come up with new definitions of value.”
– Tim Leberecht
Calls from either camp will grow louder, and it is clear that we need a third way of working because our current one is no longer effective. We will have to redefine productivity, or, perhaps, more radically, come up with new definitions of value. Most importantly, we need to value what we cannot measure: emotions, dreams, desires, intuition, imagination, beauty, and romance. The things we can’t measure and therefore can’t maximise or optimise are the ones that give our lives meaning. Why should we separate our work—where most of us spend the majority of our waking hours—from these experiences?
Bold Ideas: In your book, ‘The Business Romantic’, you suggest a disruptive leadership model based around “forgiving work places” and leaders that give people the opportunity “to be weak at work.” What are the strategies leaders should adopt in order to change their current mindset in which both employers and employees are seen as ‘agents of optimisation, efficiency and productivity’?
Tim Leberecht: The leadership expert Gianpietro Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD business school, recently noted in an essay that we need more fellowship and less leadership. I agree and might add that we also need more companionship. This requires higher levels of empathy and a shift from authority based on knowledge to credibility based on the courage of not knowing. More than ever, tomorrow’s business leaders must be able to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, and business graduates need what Flaubert called an “education sentimentale.”
Being level-headed and “cool” in the face of conflict and opposition is no longer enough. The main hallmark of a great leader is a big heart. The ability to listen, empathise and act against data, act against the illusion of “objective knowledge” and rely more on “subjective insights”: imagination, intuition, empathy. It is ok for leaders to get carried away, to give more than they take, to be generous and cooperative, to waver and err, and to follow instead of just marching ahead. Leaders should also model that showing up with a different self every day is ok; that we can also be trusted when we’re not our high-performing, consistent selves. They can show their vulnerabilities and even their fears. They can be authentic. Only if they’re comfortable with losing control will they be able to exert influence.
“It is ok for leaders to show their vulnerabilities and even their fears. Only if they are comfortable with losing control will they be able to exert influence.”
– Tim Leberecht
Bold Ideas: Going back to your book, you refer a lot to the “meaning- thirsty” millennials. What should employers consider when designing working environments and job specs that millennials can thrive in?
Tim Leberecht: Studies show that millennials are intrinsically motivated by the desire to make a difference in the world. The mission of an organisation and how it lives up to it are critically important for attracting and retaining millennial employees. Millennials are open to experimenting with new concepts and to merging their personal and work lives. As digital natives, millennials are also often more comfortable with new, virtual forms of collaboration, more flexible workplace cultures, and less hierarchical organisations.
At the same time, not everything is rosy. Like no other generation before them millennials are affected by the negative effects of digital technology: volatile employment, social and economic uncertainty (they are the first generation in modern time that is economically worse off than its parents), “Fear-Of-Missing-Out” (FOMO), hyper-competitiveness, and the pressure to build and manage a personal brand online.
“Like no other generation before them, millennials are affected by the negative effects of digital technology: volatile employment, economic uncertainty, “Fear-Of-Missing-Out”, hyper-competitiveness, and the pressure to build a personal brand online.”
– Tim Leberecht
So for leaders and companies wanting to appeal to millennials, my advice is: build a culture of purpose, and then leave enough room for them to shape it and bring it to life. Control and coercion are out, culture, community, and camaraderie are in. Millennials will thrive because they feel like they’re part of the journey, because they are learning and building something, not because of extrinsic motivation like monetary rewards or adding your brand on their resume.
Bold Ideas: In your talk at The Conference, last summer, you said that “we need more designs for (un) happy endings.”. The 2008 financial crash resulted in millions of young and educated people being laid off or losing their jobs. 2015 has seen a slight decrease in the overall number, but the situation remains grim, especially within Europe. What would your advice be to a capable yet unemployed young person in terms of keeping their enthusiasm alive when looking for work?
Tim Leberecht: That’s a tough one. Seeing these numbers and hearing these personal stories is heartbreaking. It’s the other side of the maximum-freedom-purpose-and options-culture that we tend to promote. For so many young people the future is rather grim and they don’t have a ton of options, so purpose is less of a choice but a necessity – the only remaining anchor. The writer Joseph Luzzi, with whom I recently had the pleasure to speak, pointed me to Dante’s concept of “Dark Wood” (“selva oscura” in Italian), the idea that when you hit rock bottom, when you’re at a point of deep misery and depression, it is often also a moment of immense revelation. A new identity, a new vision, a next step emerge, some of which may have been hidden in you for years. Of course it is easy to say: reinvent yourself! But that’s not what I mean: I’m simply saying, listen closely and be open to new insights, something new is bubbling up inside you, and that’s a wonderful opportunity. Crisis is a time of transition, it is frightening and certainly not easy, but it is deep and rich.
On a more practical side, it is very important that you stay social, meet friends, and don’t begin to hibernate and hide in your shell, so that you are not marginalising yourself. Work actively on your self-esteem by doing something meaningful: volunteer, start a passion project, keep a blog diary, write letters, run social experiments, make music, paint, do a research project—whatever excites you. There are many ways to be productive and do meaningful work without getting paid. Do all that in parallel to your job hunt, and who knows, perhaps one of these side projects might lead to something bigger and paid and become your main track. I know it sounds like a cliché, but times of crisis are the perfect time to find out what your true passion is—and to follow it.
Finally, know you’re not alone. In fact, in a way you are modelling behaviour that many more of us will experience soon. When up to 50% of jobs could be replaced by machines, un-employment will be more normal, or perhaps even the new normal, and we will need to think about decoupling productivity from income, employment from wealth in order to sustain a coherent society that does not fall into mass depression. One possible solution to this might be an even more extreme gig economy, another one is Universal Basic Income. In any case, we will need more rituals for fostering self-esteem, finding meaning, and feeling like a valued member of society—at work and outside of work.
“Work actively on your self-esteem by doing something meaningful: volunteer, start a passion project, write letters, run social experiments, make music —whatever excites you.”
– Tim Leberecht
Bold Ideas: You mentioned are actively teaching small businesses around the world how to become more romantic. How is that going?
Tim Leberecht: I launched this campaign at TEDx Istanbul last summer and have been signing up companies worldwide ever since. It’s not a formal process where companies need to apply or undergo a strict process in order to get “certified” as a romantic company. The only criterion is that they are interested in romanticism in business and invite me to give a talk or run a workshop on site. Basically, it is my goal to expose as many companies as possible to the idea of business romanticism, and I’m counting on the fact that the longer the list and the more reputable brands it includes, the easier it will be to attract additional companies.
I don’t limit this effort to only Fortune 500 companies, although many of the companies so far are larger organisations like Airbus, IBM, UPS, BBVA, or Ford. But I also spoke at several small and medium-sized firms: Ideagoras, a small but prolific social media agency in Madrid; Thjnk, a German advertising firm; Blue State Digital, the digital firm in New York that oversees all online efforts for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign; or Monitor 360, a consulting firm focused on narratives. It’s been very insightful and inspiring for me to bring romance to the heart of business. Not everybody is immediately in love with the concept of romance—it can seem a bit scary. But there is certainly a great desire for alternative ways of doing business, for creating more beautiful organisations that cater to our emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic needs, our full humanity.
“Not everybody is immediately in love with the concept of romance — it can seem a bit scary. But there is certainly a great desire for alternative ways of doing business, for creating more beautiful organisations that cater to our full humanity.”
– Tim Leberecht
Encouraged by my experiences, I have now formed The Business Romantic Society, a collective of management consultants, designers, and artists who bring enchantment to business and help build soulful, beautiful organisations. Aside from consulting projects, we are offering workshops, labs, excursions, and retreats, and other formats to make the benefits for participating companies and individuals as specific and accessible as possible. There is one special program though for which you have to apply: for a select number of companies we are going to conduct “romantic experiments”—focused research or carefully designed experiences that test some of our hypotheses while adding value to the company. These experiments come for free, and we’re actively looking for partner firms now, so please contact me if you’re interested in learning more.
This article first appeared on 1984 Bold Ideas.