Leberecht: There needs to be a new Romantic movement in business

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Being Romantic is the most unique advantage humans have in the age of machines, Leberecht said in his talk at Unleash

“We need a new Romantic movement and need new Romantics of our time – HR can be this,” according to Tim Leberecht, co-founder and co-CEO of The Business Romantic Society.

Speaking on day two of the Unleash Conference and Expo in London, Leberecht said: “Being Romantic is the single-most unique advantage we’ll have in the age of machines. We often hear people say ‘let’s not Romanticise this or be Romantic about a project’ as though it’s a bad thing.”

Pointing to the original Romantic movement and Romantic poets like Byron who “espoused the virtues of the time”, Leberecht said he believes “we’re at a similar moment in time”.

Citing research that estimates 50% of the human workforce will be replaced by AI in the future, Leberecht conceded that while “no-one knows” for sure what will happen, “exponential technology will disrupt what it means to be human and so we can use technology to make us more human or less human”.

As well as digitalisation leading to job displacement, it is also creating poorer human connections, he added: “We live in an age of dissonance as we’re connected more than ever but are also lonelier than ever before.”

This is where the case for a new Romantic movement emerges, Leberecht explained. “Many people are Romantic outside of work but not in work,” he said, adding that work is a “paradox as without it we’re miserable… as it’s how we interact and have purpose… but then also most of us are miserable at work”.

“But Romance is what makes us human, so as machines take over jobs and do things more efficiently the most important work is work that can be done beautifully,” he said.

However, the challenge is “how we take this spirit of Romance and operationalise it and yield results without compromising the essence of Romanticism”.

Leberecht cited three rules for business Romanticism: do the unnecessary, create intimacy and be able to suffer.

On the first rule, Leberecht shared his personal experience of working at a tech company that was merging with another firm, both of which had very different cultures. In launching a new brand identity bringing the two together the leaders had planned to distribute thousands of orange balloons – the new brand colour – to the workforce.

“And we cut the orange balloons because it was deemed an 'unnecessary' cost and that contributed to the new organisation failing. When you cut the unnecessary you cut everything,” said Leberecht. “To lead with beauty means to rise above what’s merely necessary.”

He advised, therefore, that “whatever the orange balloons are, don’t cut them”.

However, creating beautiful workspaces designed to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work isn’t the answer here, he warned, adding that “to be a beautiful organisation requires it to also be ugly – to be authentic is to also be ugly”.

Leberecht went on to explain rule two – create intimacy. “In large parts of the Western world there’s social isolation and a crisis of loneliness – we’ve never been more communicative and yet are lonelier,” he said.

Organisations need to “design for intimacy”, he added, suggesting silent meetings or silent moments at the beginning of meetings.

Or organisations could follow Danone’s example, he said, explaining that the company held a workplace retreat where everyone was told to wear hats and wigs for the full three days. Successful decisions came out of it, he said, partly because meetings were treated “like a dramatic event or play and that’s important as we treat meetings as operational affairs when they should be about intimacy”.

“This is how you create intimacy – either no masks or lots of masks,” he said.

“We’re longing to be treated as unique individuals,” he added, explaining that people “don’t want a personalised experience, we want a personal experience”.

Coming onto the third rule – fostering the ability to suffer – Leberecht pointed to football fans for whom he said the “most painful defeat can be more important than the most glorious victories”.

In business, however, people don’t wish to suffer, and yet they need to because organisations “will be losing” in a number of areas soon, including losing the linear narrative of the organisation, with a need to reinvent themselves multiple times.

“We have to learn how to lose and end things in order to move on,” Leberecht said.

These three rules of the business Romantic will “mark the shift away from the connected age mainly driven by data to the new Romantic era”, he said.

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