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We need more love! Why romance is at the heart of entrepreneurship, and ought to be at the heart of business


Are you a romantic when it comes to business? I often ask these questions at the beginnings of my talks, and usually only a few hands go up, tentatively. In business, we often call someone a “romantic” if we view them as utterly naïve or overly idealistic. We also use the term to dismiss all-too-optimistic outlooks or ideas that appear foolish. Sometimes, in meetings, we are told to “stop romanticizing.” So we do.

That is a huge mistake.

To be clear, romance is not just the quality of a relationship to another person, rather, it describes how we relate to the things and people around us. Romance is a way of being in which we feel truly, thrillingly alive, through every sense we possess. To romanticize means to imagine another, a better world; it means having the courage to explore the unknown, appreciate the journey for the sake of the journey, and unconditionally believe that there’s always something more than we can see.

In other words: being romantic means to be an entrepreneur. Like romantics, entrepreneurs are fools who see the world as it is not but could be. They start their journey with no or only little evidence, only an “impossible dream.” They are misfits who do not want to conform and thus have no other choice than to lead. They lead from outside of traditional organisations as entrepreneurs, and they lead from within existing structures, as intrapreneurs.

A need for enchantment

Romanticism goes back to the movement that emerged in the late 18th century, inspired by British poets and writers like Keats, Wordsworth, and Blake, who felt disenchanted by the age of enlightenment, which had espoused reason over emotion and shunned subjectivity and transcendence from large parts of society.

Today, we’re facing a new form of disenchantment: the quantification of everything. Due to the data-driven and bottom-line mindset that dominates our professional and increasingly also our personal lives, we strive to eliminate everything from business that is typically associated with romance, such as surprise, vulnerability, ambiguity, and intense emotions. We plan and stay the course; we minimize risk and endeavor to be consistent, fully predictable, and in complete control at all times. Big data and algorithms are welcome helpers. But if we’re not careful, they make this world smaller and suppress our quest for another one.

Romance is, again, the antidote to this kind of thinking. In fact, in a world where data allows us to maximize and optimize everything, it is the ultimate disruption. Romantics know that data provides evidence but rarely the full truth. They understand that they’re never fully in control, but that their words and actions as leaders can connect them and others with an idea or a cause so profound and essential that it transcends the boxes on a spreadsheet. They appreciate that the most important enterprise of the 21st century is the human heart: as the key to all individual and societal change.

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.

Romance means living dangerously, not just happily

It is important though to distinguish between romance, idealism, and social impact. They are close relatives but not identical twins. B-Corps, conscious capitalism, and purpose-driven companies want to do well by doing good, and their leaders are pragmatic idealists.

Romantics operate at a different heartbeat. Like idealists, they are passionately driven by the belief that another, a better world is possible, but unlike pragmatists, they don’t try to cool down their emotions to achieve their ambitious goals. For the romantics, feeling more—in addition to doing good—is the modus operandi, and creating something that’s not only useful but also beautiful is a primary concern.

This may sound too “soft” for some, but soft qualities are hard factors in business these days. According to a recent Fortune survey, executives pay more attention to soft factors than ever: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” as management guru Peter Drucker once put it. Moreover, the survey claims that ideas are the main currency of a business’ attraction in the marketplace – to both employees and customers. But it is not only the ideas for a new product, service, technology, or business model: the most important idea is the very idea that the business is built on, its mission, its main argument.

Etsy recently launched a foundation to promote the concept of “regenerative entrepreneurship” that “places an emphasis on personal growth, imparts a deeper understanding of the natural and social systems upon which our world operates, and offers the skills, wisdom and connections that entrepreneurs need to build businesses that regenerate the people and places they touch.” In a similar vein, Prime Produce, a guild for the 2st century,” in NY, is set out to promote “slow entrepreneurship,” fostering values such as commitment, devotion, and the hard labor of nurturing the “soul” of a company.

What’s happening in Australia?

However, start-ups and tech disruptors can get it terribly wrong. Just as their heritage predecessors have tripped up and sent trust with their employees and customers plummeting, new market entrants, whilst appearing more romantic from the outside, can be crippled with poor culture and a climate of deception, bullying and contempt.

Take the recent sexual discrimination case at Uber as an example of a newish workplace, plagued with distrust, poor people practices, lack of transparency verging on contempt for its people and customers. Workplace bullying in Australia is pervasive. A 2016 study from the University of Woollongong revealed that half of the Australian population have experienced workplace bullying. Combine that alarming statistic with the increasing rates of anxiety, depression and mental health issues in the Australian population, our workplaces are more like a searing hot pan ready to explode than places of collaboration, teamwork, and social cohesion.

From lean to deep start-ups

The business “soul” is often shaped in the initial stages, the foundational days, the foundational stories of a company. I wish entrepreneurs would embrace a model that is more of a “deep start-up” than a “lean start-up”: one that invests in conviction, culture, and character early on, in an idea of work and collaboration that allows employees to bring their full selves to work, at the magical intersection of what feels good and is the right thing to do. More than anything else, that is their responsibility as entrepreneur.

In a time where start-up founders are glorified as the new pop stars of our time and hold tremendous sway, we must expand our definition of entrepreneurial success. Rather than as masters of resilience, efficiency, and scale, entrepreneurs can be romantics who consider business the ultimate romantic adventure, and lead us to foreign places and new, uncharted territories.

They can serve as the authors and architects of company cultures that model decency and integrity, and in which vulnerability, even human error, is a genuinely humane quality. They can act as the stewards of a world in world where businesses not only serve or satisfy us, but move us, challenge us, and imbue our lives with meaning. It seems that those at the helm of People and Culture, the C-Suite executives, could all take on that charisma, that intrapreneurial push, to radically humanise work, for the benefit of all.

Entrepreneurs understand that romance in business is not about loving what you do or doing what you love. It’s not about constant happiness either, but all about small moments of adventure, mystery, and intimacy.

There is a direct relationship between romance and charisma. Charisma means literally “gift,” and a charismatic leader usually gives more than he or she takes: more meaning, more warmth, more inspiration than could be captured in mere quantitative terms. The charismatic leader is enigmatic, perhaps even a bit erratic, unpredictable, because he or she rises above the merely transactional framework, the tit-for-tat of everyday business. Its’ a game, not just a numbers game. He or she leaves the realm of the practical to help us remember what matters—and what could be possible. He or she has the ability to find meaning and perhaps even beauty in the seemingly mundane and let you see that as well. This “gift” is indeed an excess that can’t be justified with a pure business mindset. Charisma is the privilege of the romantics, and the hallmark of organizations and brands that people truly fall in love with.

Many companies claim that understanding and addressing customer needs is key to appeal and loyalty. But really powerful brands are loved for who they are, not what they provide. Romantic leaders therefore start with listening inside, with building personality and character, with making sure that the company behaves the same way when the world is watching – or no one.

The hall of fame of business is full of romantics: from Steve Jobs to Sir Richard Branson. You may notice one thing they all have in common is: they are entrepreneurs. The original romantics were entrepreneurs, and it is time that today’s entrepreneurs embrace romanticism as an integral part of our humanity. In a world of maximizers and optimizers, romance is perhaps the ultimate differential, the ultimate disruption.

Let’s not worry so much about exponential organizations but simply making the ones we have more decent: Take the word of William Blake: “I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”

Tim Leberecht is an internationally best-selling author of The Business Romantics, and 2x TED speaker. A unique voice in the business landscape, Tim’s work is being watched, listened to and read by millions all over the globe, and is being hailed as radically transforming by the businesses he was worked with including Amazon, Google, Samsung, Tencent, Apple, Disney, GE, Airbus, Akbank, Blue State Digital, BBVA, DHL, Ford Motors, Huge, IBM, NEC, Otto Group, Pfizer, Thjnk, UPS, Vitra, Wolff Olins, and Ziba Design. He has spoken at and worked with the World Economic Forum and is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune, Psychology Today, Washington Post, and Wired. Tim will be speaking at two events in Australia, The Business Romantic, on Monday 27 March, Doltone House, Sydney and Friday 31 March, Meat Market, Melbourne. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit http://www.thebusinessromanticevent.com

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht