Tim Leberecht is a German-American author and entrepreneur, and the co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community with the mission to make humans more human and business more beautiful.
Previously, Tim served as the chief marketing officer of NBBJ, a global design and architecture firm. From 2006 to 2013, he was the chief marketing officer of product design and innovation consultancy Frog Design.
His TED Talks “3 Ways to (Usefully) Lose Control of Your Brand” and most recently “4 Ways to Build a Human Company in the Age of Machines” have been viewed more than 2.5 million times to date. Tim is the author of the book The Business Romantic (HarperCollins, 2015), which has been translated into nine languages to date. Tim’s writing regularly appears in publications such as Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, Inc, Quartz, Psychology Today, and Wired. His new book, The End of Winning, will be released next year.
In this interview, I speak to Tim Leberecht on how we can make business beautiful.
Q: When did business lose its beauty?
[Tim Leberecht]: Industrialisation brought the idea of serial business, the Taylorism that repeated industrial processes and established a mechanical notion of the world. This came with bureaucracy and disenchantment- the iron cage that figures like Max Weber complained about. Next came financialisation, and the idea that financial assets were no longer rooted in material goods. This grew during the 1980s, 1990s, and culminated with the sub-prime mortgage crisis. We also have exponentialism, propagated by Silicon Valley, the idea that the world is something we can engineer. Evgeny Morozov calls this solutionism, whereby there is a hammer of every nail, and that engineering thinking is the driver for business, society. and governance.
It’s interesting that the word economy can be rooted in ancient Greek meaning household accounts. Yet, we have lost that sense of community and household. The word business showed up for the first-time in the 14th-15th century, and was a term to describe an occupation, i.e., something that someone does. It was much later it became a term to describe an organisation which has the main goal to create profit, shareholder value.
It’s a very recent development in the modern world that we narrowed the way of thinking of business as something that’s primarily designed to produce profit, rather than serving the common good.
Q: Why is it important to love what we do?
[Tim Leberecht]: There is a saying, beauty is looking at reality through the lens of love. We find beauty and meaning in the seemingly mundane when we look through the lens of love. This need-not be romantic love, it can be a caring love, the love of an intimate relationship, or the love of an object, idea, organisation, or group. It is that love which bestows beauty upon things.
We spend most of our waking hours in work. Our work grants us an identity, integrates us into society, and communicates who we are, what we do, and how we spend our energy. The very definition of work is energy spent over time. Our work is how we exhaust ourselves, how we go through the world, how we make and create things. The relationship we have with our work is more delicate and meaningful than we realise. The poet David Whyte said that work breaks us or makes us- and it is sadly a rarity for people to be made by their work- most of us are broken by work as we don’t have the luxury of work that bestows beauty and meaning on our lives. People can lack the right tools, resources, lens, or language to find meaning.
Q: How does enchantment relate to business?
[Tim Leberecht]: Enchantment is a beautiful term. If we go back to Max Weber; he observed the world as disenchanted because of bureaucracy and scientific rationality, and today we’re similarly obsessed with data, quantification, the quantified self, and the quantified workplace. This approach excludes a large part of human experience- any magic, any romance, anything that remains elusive from quantification… the things that perhaps matter most in life.
In enchantment, we lose ourselves, we find meaning, we connect to something greater than ourselves, and we experience moments of transcendence. This is the domain of the arts and humanities.
There is no reason why businesses can’t allow for more enchantment. They can create moments of truth, moments of ecstatic joy, moments of emotional intimacy with co-workers, customers, and ideas. These are the moments where we really discover our humanity.
We also need to embrace negative emotions, not just the forced-positivity we see in the workplace. For many, humanising the workplace means forced-happiness, forced-positivity and forced-positive-emotions. Equally important however is creating room for negative emotions such as sorrow, melancholy, and grief.
The pandemic reminded us of what it is to feel alive as distinguished from purpose or ‘doing good’ – enchantment is the most powerful way for us to connect to something that makes us feel alive, and that’s what we want, to be alive.
Q: What’s the ‘business case’ for making business beautiful?
[Tim Leberecht]: Making a business case for beautiful business means somewhat, that we’re staying within the confines in traditional business-thinking. That deprives us of the opportunity to re-imagine business from the ground up.
What we do know is that purpose-driven businesses that are attuned to their environment have a strong sense of the ‘aesthetic’ – not just in terms of ‘looking’ beautiful, but in the deep sense of appreciation for the world and the living beings who inhabit it. Those businesses have a higher sensitivity, are more creative, offer more psychological safety for their employees, offer environments that are more conducive to creativity, innovation, reinvention and often are more resilient. Purpose driven businesses exhibit all the qualities that we now know are prerequisites to be successful in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.
I hope that business leaders explore this notion that business is an arbiter of meaning, and can be a vehicle for finding truth, beauty and creativity.
People often speak about Apple as being a ‘beautiful’ business, to me, it’s the very opposite of what it means to be beautiful. When you look back at Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech and his philosophy, he was deeply rooted in the arts and humanities, the ‘crazy ones’ and eccentricity. This was the beautiful spirit that meant that he wanted the interior of his first computers to be designed with the same love and vigour as the exterior. I have huge respect for Tim Cook, but under his leadership, Apple has become a machine. It has serialised a formula with tremendous vigour, and they resemble- in many ways- a juggernaut business.
Q: Do we need to move past human centred design?
[Tim Leberecht]: I don’t like the term human centred design. Our problem is that we’ve been too human centred! Look at the climate crisis, and other crises we face today. We’ve been too obsessed with ourselves, and we’ve put the human at the centre of everything. It’s time to move beyond that. It’s time to enter a post-anthropocentric era.
The idea of beautiful business is a vision, it doesn’t fully exist yet.
Q: Why do we not give significance to the sense of gathering that business brings?
[Tim Leberecht]: Priya Parker’s work in this field has been influential. She makes the point that whenever we gather, however we choose to do it, it creates meaning. This meaning can be intentional, unintentional or (sadly) ignored! Leaders of beautiful businesses are aware of the many dimensions of gatherings and realise that gathering creates space not just for profit, product and value – but for social interaction, identity, spirituality and transcendence.
Q: What has been the consequences of making wealth our aesthetic?
[Tim Leberecht]: Money is a means to an end, in an ironic way. Money allows us to buy beauty, create beautiful experiences, and to accumulate accolades that make us feel like we live a beautiful life. Ultimately, that’s what we want. We want to live lives that are worth remembering, that are rich, pleasurable, full of love and joy. For many people, money is the key to unlocking this.
All the research shows however that money doesn’t quite equate with happiness, particularly over certain incomes, and particularly for those of us who are privileged enough to not have to worry about livelihood.
We need to learn how to live beautiful lives in ways that are not tied to accumulation of wealth and status. We need to create a new kind of sentimentality that we teach ourselves and others and which teaches us the beauty of things which may not be expensive!
We also need to look at new policies and systems. I believe that universal basic income is quite interesting. It levels the playing field and makes us not so worried about our livelihoods. It gives us time to breathe, rest and appreciate the beauty around us without having to be constantly hyper-successful and hyper-productive.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Tim Leberecht]: I’m turning 50 next year, so I’m entering that life stage where I start to think about legacy, and I do want to leave behind something that transcends me. I hope that through the work I do with the House of Beautiful Business, that people remember some beautiful experiences that helped them reach a higher consciousness, lift their spirits, gave them courage to change their lives and organisations. Even just incrementally.