PHOTO: Louvre Museum, L'Amour et Psyché by François Édouard Picot
Corporations have been engaged in a willful battle against the very grain of existence. Like the good Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, they have spent enormous amounts of energy putting in place systems that attempt to hold back the shifting oceanic qualities of existence. The complexity of the world could be accounted for, they fervently hoped, by a simple increase in the thickness of the company manual.
… The twenty-first century will be anything but business as usual. Institutions must now balance the need to make a living with a natural ability to change. They must also honor the souls of the individuals who work for them and the great soul of the natural world from which they take their resources.
But finding the soul in American corporate life is blessedly fraught with difficulties. The seething, snapping, boisterously self-referential global way of business is like American life itself, at once a gift and a tempting poison.
… Preservation of the soul means refusing to relinquish the body and its sensual appreciation of texture, color, multiplicity, pain, and joy.
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Since David Whyte penned these prophetic words in 2002 in his book The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, a number of American corporations have made significant progress towards nurturing wholeheartedness at the workplace. It is becoming an imperative actually.
The arousal that Whyte talks about here is an arousal of creative power buried deeply in the founding ideals and origin stories of even the most stagnant corporations.
These pioneers encountered a real need in the world and responded with love for the world. Greeks used gods to convey the mindset of leaders that make things happen, whether in ancient Athens or in the present-day New York City.
At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night (Nyx), Darkness (Erebus), and the Abyss (Tartarus). Earth, Air and Heaven had no existence. First, blackwinged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Darkness, and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Love (Eros) with his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest. He mated in the deep Abyss with dark Chaos, winged like himself, and thus hatched forth our race, which was the first to see the light. (Aristophanes, Birds, lines 690–699, Translation by Eugene O'Neill, Jr.)
For the Greeks, Eros was a world-engendering God, a creative force springing from chaos, darkness, and abyss.
Why does religion often rail against sex and why do corporations often dismiss the soft power of love? The reasons are the same: sex and love represent the unmitigated and fast flow of life. They are vehicles of change.
We are in a constant state of evolution, life itself relentlessly flowing and pressing onward. Eros, graceful life, keeps life in motion. Religious dogma and corporate manuals, on the other hand, want to see the world in absolute terms.
Many companies are anti-erotic. Not merely by prescribing the costumes everyone has to wear in order to enact the stability we are after, but also by a refusal to ask of themselves “What is life asking of us now?” Instead of being alive, they are indulging in delusional thought that resisting life is somehow a good thing.
So let’s try, for the duration of this piece, to hold two basic assumptions about the world as the ancients saw it.
Life is a love affair.
In the inner chambers of our corporate boardrooms and the creative spaces of our startup offices, we don’t talk about love. It is un-businesslike. Unseemly, actually.
Our fears of love in the workplace are actually justified. Love is dangerous.
Because love is vulnerable.
And in our risk-management culture, vulnerability is dangerous. All weaknesses, limits, and failures are under suspicion.
Yet, since we humans cannot live without love, we have found a way to talk about safer stand-ins: visions, missions, purposes, and goals.
These are all necessary functional components of a leadership strategy, but they cannot be substituted for the heart of the matter.
In fact, in our hyper-connected world, the greatest risk a business can take is to neglect the love story that animates one’s organization and bridges the gap between the organization and the world.
For high impact leaders, love is an unavoidable topic. In order to lead well and in order to lead whole people, sooner or later such leaders and their organizations have to move beyond information, knowledge, expertise, and business savvy, into the territory of wisdom.
Wisdom is the way we use information, knowledge, expertise, and business savvy as we respond to life coming at us.
Wisdom is the way love works. To be wise is to love well.
Leaders who continue to label this conversation as “touchy-feely crap,” as legendary consultant Peter Block points out, do so at their own peril. Touchy-feely crap is going to come back to bite them in the form of their competitor’s success.
Wisdom is how stuff actually gets done and love is the way great innovators innovate, great executives execute, and great entrepreneurs play their high-stake game.
Wisdom is an irreducibly human capacity and, as such, will always be at a premium. At the end of the day, it is those who love well that make human surviving and thriving possible.
Great businesses are erotic.
It is not about sex. It is about having an intercourse with life. Buddha and Jesus were both celibates. As are Dalai Lama and Pope Francis. We see no obvious sexuality in their lives. But we would never say they are not erotic. They are charged with vitality, intimately engaged with the world and with people around them. (from Thomas Moore in A Religion of One’s Own, 2014, p. 136)
The questions that could begin a real organizational transformation are erotic in nature:
1. “Do we have the courage to face our delusions of stability and risk being alive instead?”
2. “Are the stories we tell about ourselves and our organization worth toiling for?”
3. “Do we as an organization have a unique and dynamic way of loving life in the way we dress for work, interact at work, and ritualize our work?”
If you can respond with an unequivocal yes to any one of these questions you will be on your way to being alive and creating something from the Chaos, Darkness, and Abyss that surround you.