Lead with Concrete Love
Business leadership literature has undergone three phases. The first one was what I’d call the strongman leader concept: the leader as commander, with a clear ideology and worldview, fearless and therefore often fear-inducing: consistent, persistent, inspiring, aligning, and guiding others with a steady hand. Consider it the military, “Prussian” style of leadership: the leader as infallible authority, the rock in the water. It may seem quaint, but this brand of leader is still more salient in the corporate world that you might imagine.
The second phase of leadership was the inspirational leader: the leader as north star who projects a “promised land” and mobilizes others around their cause. Rooted in a strong sense of purpose and a corresponding set of values, this type of leader banks on intrinsic motivation and inspires rather than commands, demonstrating a high degree of emotional intelligence and empathy, a primus inter pares (first among equals) who rallies the troops rather than commanding them.
The third and most recent phase of leadership has been the servant leader: the leader as community builder and organizer, a curator of connection and enabler of collaboration, “leading from behind,” serving their constituents rather than insisting on their loyalty. With humility and generosity, this type of leader commands respect by embodying a more progressive form of participatory (un)leadership: a sensitive par inter pares (an equal among equals), driving transformation through listening rather than actions, a beacon of hope rather than a north star.
Now a new form of leadership is emerging: beautiful leadership. Beautiful leadership takes cues from all the aforementioned concepts, reconfigures them, and blends them into something else entirely: a model of leadership that is fluid, introspective, sensuous, wholehearted, full-bodied, and transformative on both a personal and professional level. The beautiful leader encourages and helps others to lead a beautiful life, with them or without them, in, through, and beyond business. The most important quality of such a leader is the softest and hardest of all skills: love.
The beautiful leader leads with concrete love.
It has taken me more than 49 years of life experience and 24 years of professional experience to write this sentence. It still feels embarrassing — and thus true.
So what exactly does it mean?
A retired doctor told me that he was once asked by graduate students for advice: “How,” the students wondered, “do you make sure you consistently deliver quality work?” The man didn’t have to think long: “love,” he replied. “Love is the essence of quality.”
Similarly, the US-American financial journalist Duff McDonald who has written books about McKinsey, Morgan Stanley, and Harvard, recently shared with me an epiphany he had during the pandemic. He realized there is only one solution to a problem, a conflict, a business challenge: don’t try to explain, analyze, or rationalize it. Simply add more love. His book, Tickled: A Commonsense Guide to the Present Moment, elaborates on this and is a shock departure from what he calls his misguided attempt to “solve quantification with quantification.”
Perform acts to take action
Love is the antidote to business’s ugliest currency: cynicism. These days, many leaders are so afraid of green-, purpose-, or diversity-washing, of being accused of cynical window-dressing, that they cannot muster any courage to make a non-cynical move. They are afraid of taking any action because it might be considered “just an act,” a one-off gesture, or empty rhetoric.
But how other than one act at a time do you make something ugly beautiful?
Beautiful leaders realize that every action is preceded by an act. In fact, taking action often requires first performing an act: the symbolic or even theatrical enactment of an idea, aspiration, or intention.
Concrete Love, this year’s festival of the House of Beautiful Business, comprises two parts: Acts and Actions. Because to drive real and lasting change, to lead beautifully and effectively, we need both the theatrical and practical, the performative and the executive, the symbolic and the actual, the imaginative and the real.
A beautiful leader is courageous enough to commit acts even without the assurance of action, without knowing that their acts will lead to anything. A beautiful leader commits acts of love without any assurance of reciprocity.
This makes them vulnerable, but in a deeper sense than simply owning up to “negative” emotions.
VUCA leaders must be VUCA
To understand and lead through VUCA, this most horrible of acronyms and yet valid description of our times, the beautiful leader must be VUCA themselves: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
This starts with the notion of truth. Rather than holding the absolute truth (the strongman leader) or a strong subjective truth, a purpose (the inspirational leader), the beautiful leader serves not just by acknowledging the truths of others but also by being willing to give up their own.
Former Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher argues that in order to overcome polarization, we must all concede some of our truth. Instead of seeking one absolute truth, we must shift to a “minimum viable truth.” That of course is not a popular proposition, neither with the scientific, fact-based community nor those who prefer to herald visceral truths over empirical ones.
But Maher is right: Agreement, let alone human collaboration, is not possible unless we each give up our truths. If that is the case, though, how do you maintain core convictions that your ethics demand you keep?
The difference is essence. A beautiful leader is an essential leader: they tap into the essence of things, and do so both in the sense of discerning what is a more profound, deeper truth, and tapping into the volatility of a substance, the “aroma” of a culture. The beautiful leader knows that the zeitgeist is not an intellectual but a spiritual matter, and that in fact it often presents itself as a vibe to be attuned to, a flavor, a fleeting sensation, a delicate touch, sublime and yet concrete.
Sensitive and sensuous
The beautiful leader is not just sensitive but sensuous. They acquire and hone an education that is sentimental and erotic versus rational and enlightened. “Without feeling, knowledge becomes stale. Without reason, it becomes indelicate,” the Nigerian-Swedish afrofeminist writer Minna Salami, author of the book Sensuous Knowledge, contends. Her book, a gentle battle cry against what she calls “a Europatriarchial concept of knowledge,” is a manifesto for beautiful leadership: act and action at once. Her list of recommended readings and references alone is more inspiring than the content of more traditional leadership books.
Sensuous beautiful leadership is a more conscious leadership, but not only in the sense of social or political awareness. The consciousness of a beautiful leader is more expansive: it’s realism that easily spans multiple realities.
In this vein, Tantra Hindu and Buddhist traditions insist that there are various realities, and what we consider the “normal world” is the least real. Amelia Perkins, a Tantric scholar, told me: “Most of us exist mainly in the everyday mundane world, which Tantra calls the mental. Tantra suggests tapping into the mythic reality. It’s mythic, not because it’s a myth, or not true, but because that is the realm where the stories that shape us live. That’s the mythical structure of reality. It’s where the Gods and Goddesses and Archetypes of our cultures and stories live. And finally, there is the magical realm of consciousness that is about energy. Tantra considers this realm the most real. And, of course, it’s very potent to surf all of them at once.”
Bringing the soul, brain, and body into multiple realities is the hallmark of beautiful business leaders. The body is often the missing part. Pete Hamill, an expert in embodied cognition and the author of the book Embodied Leadership, refers to the term “somatics” that stems from the Greek word somatikos, which means “the living.” It is a field of learning and development that moves the body forward, and rather than cognitive processes and strategic models engages with what Hamill calls “below the chin.” Consequently, he defines learning as “practicing situations and experiences of discomfort until you become comfortable with them.”
The beautiful leader is a conscious hedonist
Choreographer and dancer Yaara Dolev has developed a methodology, The Key, that combines elements of Gaga dance with traditional wisdom like the Tree of Life concept and kabbalistic philosophy, as well as neuroscience and embodied cognition. For Dolev, the pleasure of movement builds the deep knowledge needed for true transformation, personally and professionally.
In a similar vein, the dancer, choreographer, and coach John Michael Schert deconstructs ballet performances to help leaders embrace uncertainty. Dance lets us embody the tension or transition and ambiguity, and start moving into a direction.
Ultimately, though, if we begin to practice in earnest and make practice our daily routine, we may realize that the deep work we all have to do is not about the outcome, after all, but in the very act of practice itself. “We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end,” the English writer and theologian Alan Watts wisely remarked: “But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.”
Sensuous can be even more concrete. The Portuguese perfume artist Lourenço Lucena has worked with numerous companies and leaders on how to incorporate scent as an essential ingredient of their brand, culture, and leadership style, and he points to research that shows how underrated our nose is as an instrument of decision-making. Professor Noam Sobel of the neurobiology department at the Azrieli Center for Human Brain Imaging, Weizmann Institute of Science, explains that “we make the most important decisions of our lives” (namely, he adds, eating and mating) “by relying on that instrument.”
Like a perfume artist, a beautiful leader “smells bullshit” as much as they “stop to smell roses.” A beautiful leader must smell well and good.
Let the woo-woo in
Speaking of bullshit, you may dismiss all this as woo-woo. That’s OK. And yet, if you do, you betray a vital source of leadership: yourself. What we may have dismissed as esoteric not too long ago is rapidly moving into the business mainstream. Inner work is the new work. Sensing, energy, and embodied leadership are the new indispensables. More and more managers are recognizing that the techniques they’ve acquired and honed over the course of their careers may no longer suffice to tackle the challenges of a time in which “nothing I’ve learned can prepare me for everything else that needs learning,” to borrow a verse from the lyricist and singer Kae Tempest.
And that’s great because if we want business to be more beautiful, we must grow leaders who are wider, deeper, and softer. If we are to learn from the pandemic, then it starts with healing the divide between inner and outer self, between productive work and deep work, between intellect and intuition, between cognition and spirituality. It requires turning to new sources, regenerating existing resources, building muscle where there wasn’t, and loosening it where there was.
The singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins, in her song “Hard Drive,” narrates over a mantra-like two-chord exchange how she’s “had a rough few months” and her friend assures her, “this year, it is going to be a good one. I count to three and tap your shoulder. We’re going to put your heart back together. So all those little pieces that it took from you; they’re coming back now. So close your eyes. And count to three, take a deep breath, count with me. 1, 2, 3.”
Beautiful leadership puts our hearts back together.
Tim Leberecht is the co-founder and co-curator of the House of Beautiful Business.
The House will host its signature gathering, this year with the theme Concrete Love, from Friday, October 29 to Monday, November 1, 2021, in Lisbon and online, and from November 1 to November 26, 2021, online.
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