Dirk Dobiéy

Defy the data and act on intuition

Interview with business author and speaker Tim Leberecht

A couple of years ago I came across an article by Tim Leberecht on what entrepreneurs can learn from artists which made it immediately into my list of top reads of that year. I was fascinated by the ease at which Tim connected multiple somewhat known but not necessarily related points into a coherent whole. Tim must have realized long ago that every innovation in some way is a derivative of what exists. This realization gave him permission to use, reuse and mash-up without hesitation, so that new, original work is created. The same is true for his most recent book The Business Romantic, a wonderful contribution to better business and towards developing room for ambiguity, uncertainty, emotions and even the unconscious so that we can make space for our diverse and complex identities. Tim’s book is another piece of evidence for a development we are witnessing: more and more people join in trying to re-establish a necessary balance in society, business and life similar to what humanity accomplished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and that we refer today as German Idealism. At Age of Artists we as well think the time has come – again – to look differently at many things and in particular to revisit the idea of man, as alluded to by German painter Aris Kalaizis who stated that “we need to develop another idea of man if we want to lead change.” To us, it seems a yet unspecified avant-garde all over the world has already developed a certain readiness for change. They see clearly not only what needs to be changed in society, business or elsewhere for the better, but they also want to know how to possibly be the change themselves; both for themselves and for everyone on the planet. Tim calls it Romantic; we call it Age of Artists. We might want to agree to call this unspecified, diverse, larger than life movement Global Idealism!

We all know when reading a book thoughts and questions come up. When reading Tim’s book I noted them down and used them for this conversation. That’s why the questions may look unrelated and somehow arbitrary – simply because they represent things that came up when meandering the German version of The Business Romantic.

Dirk: Tim, in your book The Business Romantic you mention you learned most about collaboration when you played in a band. Please tell us about your key learnings.

Tim: I learned to listen, not only to the music but also to the presence of my fellow musicians. I learned how to read their play, and also the subtle cues of their body language, the tone of their voice. As for the music itself, I learned to appreciate the concept of “blue notes,” the notes that were “worried” and not pitch perfect. Furthermore, performing our songs taught me when to lead and when to follow. When you make music in front of a live audience, in the recording studio, or in the rehearsal room, you learn to practice humility, in the sense of being aware of your role in the world and your contribution relative to that of others. Sometimes you’re too loud, sometimes too quiet. Sometimes you’re too fast, sometimes you’re too slow. I learned to appreciate how fragile any collaboration is, how much you depend on others, and how just one false tone can derail the entire endeavor. Every project is built on sand. What matters is how quickly you can move on it and how well you can adjust and stay up on your feet. Another valuable lesson was: When you have an idea, don’t withhold it. Don’t be coy, don’t wait for the right time. The time to play is always now! Play, no matter what, always offer to play! Don’t be afraid of being vulnerable. On stage, I learned what it means to lose control, turn yourself inside out, and invite strangers to feel with you, to be with you, for a limited period of time. The recording studio had some other lessons for me: For example, adding another track does not expand the sound, it reduces it. The richest and most intense recordings you can conjure are those with a single instrument and a voice. This is not an argument against collaboration, but sometimes inclusiveness and complex structures are the enemies of excellence. Austerity holds tremendous power. And the slimmest margins decide over success or failure. All of these learnings helped me in business. When you’re in business together, you create together, you play together. You must earn your audience again and again. You are like a street musician, exposed to the direct, honest, and often brutal feedback from the marketplace. And you can’t hide, no matter how hard you try. People will always see you even if you decide to not to be seen. They will always receive even if you refuse to give.

Dirk: You just mentioned play. In your book you also suggest organizations to create “space for playing”. How do you suggest connecting or separating these spaces from or with the operational side of business?

Tim: Space to play must not be separated from business. A romantic organization is serious about play. It is comfortable with opposing truths and parallel worlds. It offers up escapes from business to become better at business. These escape paths can be small interventions, small “hacks” of the workday, such as launching a secret society at work, inviting colleagues to meetings with no apparent purpose, wandering without a map, and swapping desks or even roles. They can include the gamification of workplace and customer experiences, for example through Alternate Reality Games (ARG) or Live-Action Role Paying (LARP), and increasingly also Augmented or Virtual Reality applications. All of these interventions are inherently romantic: they play with alter egos and multiple identities, and express the fervent belief that another world is possible, that reality is just a construct of mind. As the romantic poet John Keats put it: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.” There is no objective truth, just artifice. For the romantic, authenticity is what feels true, not necessarily what is true. The only way to enter this gray zone is play. The romantic organization is broken, like the romantic is broken: lost, flawed, erratic, incoherent, and inconsistent, but always striving for intensity, for something new and challenging, something to be passionate about, and even if it’s just desire itself. It is the friction, the discomfort that grants us meaning.

Dirk: Such an organization needs to treat everyone as an individual. How do we need to design organizations in which we can express our intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual needs?

Tim: Although business is arguably the most important operating system of our lives, we have mostly divorced it from our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. With my book, 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. I’m currently planning a research project in collaboration with an organizational behavior scholar with the goal to model a truly humane human enterprise. The idea is to use insights from neuroscience, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and other fields to make the human case for business rather than the business case for more humane business. A study by Johnson & Johnson claims that for every dollar invested in employee happiness and wellbeing a company gains four dollars in productivity. But what if we strayed from this ROI thinking and focused only on the experience and not the end result? What if markets were indeed “sympathetic communities for social exchange,” as the philosopher Robert Solomon once submitted? What would be the implications for a company’s organizational design? I believe we need to take a radically humanist perspective to counter the pervasive dehumanization of work, propelled by the rise of datafication and quantification. I’m worried about the quantified-self movement going corporate, as data-driven decision-making (from programmatic media buying to algorithmic hiring), sensing, tracking devices, telematics, and sociometric applications are turning the workplace into what Douglas Rushkoff calls an “algorithmic battleground.” The quantification of everything is taking the business mantra of “you can only manage what you measure” as an invitation to measure every single aspect of our lives. “Only the measured life is a good life,” we now seem to believe, and we are eager to apply the principle of optimization to “softer” qualities such as happiness and wellbeing. We want to get better at happiness, get better at friendship, get better at love, get better at meaning, but we no longer know how to value what we cannot measure, we have forgotten to appreciate that the best things in life are those that can’t be optimized. That very romantic principle is in jeopardy if we force the inexplicable, the intangible into a mere number. This great quantification is indeed the new bureaucracy, the new Taylorism of our times. In her New York Times op-ed on the perils of optimization, Virginia Heffernan called the Apple Watch “a mini Gulag, optimized just for me,” insinuating that optimization is essentially a totalitarian reflex.

The Singularity University (whose mission is to “solve humanity’s grand challenges”) has been promoting a new concept called Exponential Organizations: organizations that grow exponentially because they are powered by “exponential technology.” At its core lies the belief in artificial or super-intelligence trumping human decision-making. In a recent article one of its evangelists contended that automation would mark the end of meaningless jobs for it would free us from mundane, mind-numbing, monotonous tasks. I find that naïve. We don’t need more “exponential organizations,” we need organizations that are exponentially more human. We need more room for our emotional, unpredictable, elusive un-quantified selves. We need more Dr. Watson and less Sherlock Holmes. We need more beautiful organizations (Rafael Ramirez has written extensively about the aesthetic dimensions of management)—more romantic organizations. The first order of business for such romantic organization is to be radically self-aware, that is, to be aware of its emotional, intellectual, and spiritual landscape. This can only happen if one of its leaders, or THE leader, has the propensity to the vagaries and whimsies of the human enterprise. I know this may sound touch-feely, but I believe that it really all comes down to the following basic traits: Does he or she have a big heart? Is she or he someone who can suffer? Can your organization suffer? Can it truly feel with others? And does it pursue something greater than itself? At the individual level, the best way to act like a business romantic is to feel like a business romantic. And the best way to feel like a business romantic is to carve out small spaces at work in which we allow ourselves and our colleagues to be idiosyncratic and vulnerable. Whether small, private dinners; “Thick Days” in which we spend the whole day only with one colleague and one task and one project, without any digital distractions and without being thinly stretched across various channels and media; or underground meetings with like-minded spirits: all these formats offer great opportunities to slowly introduce a romantic (sub-)culture and build some romantic muscle in our organizations.

That said, culture might not be the correct term. Workplace expert and author Shawn Murphy has introduced a new term in this context that is perhaps more congenial to the romantic: “climate.” While culture is the collection of values, beliefs, words, and behaviors, the climate of an organization is made of vibes, sentiments, and moods—the implicit, unsaid, and nonverbal. The prerequisite for a romantic climate is that an organization has what the original romantic poets called “negative capacity”: the ability to tolerate doubt, uncertainty, and inner tension. It requires an organization willing to leave some space undefined and open-ended. It requires an organization with a, for lack of a better word, soul—a secret, a deep truth, or a foundational myth at its heart that may never be revealed.

Dirk: Tim, in your book The Business Romantic you propose to not just use quantitative measures to deal with complexity. What other options do we have?

Tim: Complexity begins when quants end. The truly complex things are the ones we can’t comprehend, those outside of our grasp. Everything we understand is already a simplification. The only answer to true complexity is creativity—and ultimately that of the non-problem-solving sort: art. Art doesn’t shut doors, it opens them. It doesn’t streamline meaning, it uncovers it. It gives us the ability to reframe what we experience, to reimagine the world or invent a new one. As business leaders are confronted with increasingly complex tasks, there are real benefits for them to collaborate with artists. Artists are comfortable with complexity, ambiguity, and open-endedness. They ask the right questions instead of simply trying to problem-solve everything. They can help us lead a successful AND a beautiful life. They can teach us about the good life and highlight the important ethical choices that underpin every business decision. And they observe human desires, needs, emotions, and behavior with a sharp, discerning eye as well as a high degree of empathy. As Steve Jobs knew, artists are often the best innovators. They look upon our world, as Proust would say, with “fresh eyes.” Without the vision of such “fools” who see the world as it isn’t but could be, any company will struggle to chart new territory. Smart business leaders recognize this: Some of them write poetry to make sense of their organization. Dana Gioia, a poet and former General Foods executive, said he had an advantage over his colleagues because of his “background in imagination.” Twitters’ editorial director, Karen Wickre, a liberal arts graduate, told me the exact same thing when I interviewed her. Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, are graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design and are widely considered a new type of design-savvy business leader. Maria Sebregondi, a co-founder of Moleskine, the notebook maker, told me their product was inspired by the legendary artists who used the original notebooks, and that the company was keen on retaining that romantic spirit across its entire marketing effort. It is not just the arts, though. At even broader scale, the capabilities of philosophy, liberal arts, and the humanities can help keep organizations entrepreneurial, imagine disruptive innovations, and navigate ambiguous, complex environments in which data and analytical smarts alone prove to be insufficient.

Dirk: How do you maintain your autonomy in between contributing to an organization in romantic ways and maintaining your personal identity?

Tim: It’s a fine line and a balance we all must negotiate every day. I, for one, sometimes feel like I belong (spiritually), other times I feel like I belong to the firm (technically), and on other days again I just feel like a free agent whose resources one or more firms are leveraging. Today, many of us knowledge workers enjoy unprecedented flexibility when it comes to how we organize our work. This autonomy over our tasks and schedules is accompanied by a high degree of agency over our careers. The degree to which we “make or break ourselves at work,” as the poet and consultant David Whyte put it, can vary greatly: from giving it all and giving our best, to performing with excellence but not wanting to allow work to monopolize our identity. We can live “slash lives” now and be a father/writer/soccer coach/project manager at the same time. We have a choice: we can pursue meaning outside of work or pursue meaning at work. Increasingly, we can decide how much we want to devote ourselves to an organization. That is liberating, but it also puts a lot of pressure on both employers and employees as it is becoming much fuzzier what makes for a satisfactory performance or experience at work. In fact, the full emancipation of our selves might not come from fulfillment, but refusal. The US-magazine The New Republic recently contended that meaning in business may just be the latest corporate fad (“In Praise of Meaningless Work”): just another tool in the corporate arsenal to control employees. In a similar vein, a recent Harvard Business Review article proposed “Stop Trying to Find Your True Self at Work”. So there is some backlash against the notion of meaning and mindfulness in business, and apparently a renewed focus on a fulfilled life outside of work. I welcome that, but, regardless, it doesn’t release us from the quest to make life in business more meaningful, especially given that many of us spend the majority of our lives on the job. It is easier if your heart isn’t in it, but it is so much more rewarding when it is. All the more reason to not only offer Google-style “Search Inside Yourself” classes or other mindfulness exercises, but to radically alter the conversation and create reward systems in business that allow us to be romantic “wanderers in the fog” instead of “masters of the universe.”

Dirk: What represents courage and discipline for you when you speak about the extending ones perspective beyond quarterly reports and annual accounts?

Tim: Courage in business means two things to me. First, to defy the data and act on intuition, allowing for sentimentality and emotional attachment. I believe that’s the ultimate rebellion in a world of “whoever has the numbers wins.” To say “I know the data, I understand what they’re telling me, but here’s what I feel we should do.” The sweet spot for the romantic is when what’s the right thing to do intersects with what feels good to do. Still, acting on those two motives requires courage and discipline. Courage also means commitment. The act of walking away, cutting ties with an organization and pursuing a new chapter in your career or starting your own business, is often considered a bold move. And it is. But perhaps staying put, committing to an organization, to a worthy cause, to a path once chosen, really sinking your teeth into something for years, achieving a sense of mastery like Jiru does, the legendary sushi chef portrayed in the beautiful movie Jiru Dreams of Sushi, is the much braver act, and in fact, a deeply romantic gesture. For giving over one’s identity to office politics and corporate dogma, commitment to a job requires quiet strength. In my book, I cite Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at business school INSEAD, who said: “It takes tremendous bravery to accept the loss of some control while also maintaining a sense of individuality. You have to work on that every day.” In The Business Romantic, I also portray a former colleague, Kay Compton, an architect who at some point in her career decided to take a yearlong sabbatical and cross the Pacific Ocean on a sail boat with her husband. When I asked Compton if the journey had changed her sense of self at work, she told me: “Absolutely. When my husband and I were on the boat, there could only be one captain. We switched back and forth, but only one of us could lead at a time.” “At work,” she said, “you have to collaborate in teams, and you have to understand your role and the roles of others. There is a clarity that needs to be in place with these roles. They can shift, but when someone is the captain, you don’t argue. You don’t start an argument in the middle of the ocean.”

Commitment in the “middle”—after the magic of the beginning has faded and before we’re rewarded the joys of mastery—is perhaps the greatest professional challenge. With our desire abstract and our flame no longer alight, what is needed then is character and heart. A real union, not a fling. Commitment remains the ultimate romantic adventure.


Text by Dirk Dobiéy.
The interview was conducted by Dirk Dobiéy.
Image source: Wikipedia Commons and Tim Leberecht.

Tim Leberecht is Chief marketing officer of NBBJ and author of The Business Romantic. Find out more about Tim.

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