Yes. I’ve gone away from single word # hashtag-led blog post titles.
Because one word cannot sum up the 3 aspects I wanted to write about in this one.
Shocking news from the NY Times feature on Gravity Payments’ Dan Price. Or that should be the now resigned-from-Gravity Payments Price. It appears all was not as it seemed with this much-lauded leader. I’ve quoted the Gravity Payments story often. For those who’ve not picked it up yet, see here. However this pans out, numerous accounts of violence, abuse and assault are now being faced by Price and it’s a shocking tale of an online persona being a million miles away from the current state of who this person really is. Not to mention yet another case of a man in a “pedestal” position, using that to abuse women. FFS.
And then we have the “return” of Adam Neumann. Someone who — it appears—spaffed a lot of money up the wall living an outlandish lifestyle whilst creating the cult of WeWork. Neumann’s got some investment again for some venture or another. FFS
By the way, when I’m “over” a person I use their last name in a contemptuous tone. If I’m still on good terms with people, it’s always first names.
And then there’s the recent “crying CEO” story.
I think that’ll do to illustrate what prompted this, so I’ll get onto it then.
Flashback to 2017 — Bucharest, Romania. I’m doing a keynote speech. I’m eulogising about a few organisations that are doing things differently from others. I’m using them — as I always do — to illustrate that the theories I have about “the future of work” are backed up by people successfully living it.
Question from a fellow speaker: “What you’re describing in those examples, all sounds like cults to me.”
A fair-enough challenge.
So when does culture become a cult? And when does couture (for the sake of this post, adopting trending aspects of operating a business and working world) move into culture and avoid being a cult?
It’s on me a lot of this blog post. And here’s why.
So keen am I to dedicate myself and my work to — as in the title of Neil Usher’s forthcoming book — “Unf*cking Work”, that when I hear about and see organisations who are doing different things and breaking the mould, I’m on it like a shot.
I don’t want to know about Megacorp stacking up profit whilst treating people in its employ as disposable commodities. I want leaders who have a real sense of purpose that eschews the yachts, Lambos and NFT Bored Ape collection. I want leaders who go “this is a version of work I believe in that creates a new way. Humanist, equitable, fair, and good for the planet.”
Call BS on that if you like but I have come across and gotten to know plenty of folks who stand strong in the different spaces, because they want something more meaningful for their teams (and themselves of course) and believe they can make a sustainable commercial or social impact good through that.
I have recently donated and the team People and Transformational HR Ltd. have agreed to commit to a year supporting Charity: Water. See here to donate or join The Spring collective.
CEO and founder Scott Harrison has produced a terrific video <here>. He talks openly of his hedonistic lifestyle as a nightclub promoter UNTIL he saw a different purpose in life. TL:DR — Charity: Water was created when Scott stepped away from the cult of money and flashy lifestyles to the millions of people in the world who have no access to clean water.
Back to the cult word. Am I a cultist looking only for outliers, rule-breakers and unorthodox champions of change? I am. I’m a sucker for a story where people are doing alternative things. I’m perhaps a contrarian for the sake of it. I wouldn’t describe it as a harmful cult/fetish of mine. I’d say it’s an obsession to see and believe in alternatives to the way this world is led. By dictatorial, power-crazed, money-mad (mostly) men.
However, there is a way to avoid becoming a cult and creating one. And where couture — a fashionable statement of difference — becomes culture. Of the good sort.
Having recently looked into, and written a piece on Culture Blind Spots and the use of Behavioural Science to overcome those potentially dangerous eroding elements, I didn’t feature the fine line between couture-culture-cult. I know now, there’s a really tempting trail here.
Being on trend, and being held up as having pioneering views and application are all good news stories. In my recent podcast with the excellent Workplace Geeks (Chris Moriarty and Ian Ellison) Chris mentioned that when you hang out in the “conference bubble” you tend to only see what’s going on that is worthy of conference speaking slots.
Many people in the audience of those conferences are likely in:
- A damaged and at times toxic culture of oppressive systems of work, poor behaviours, harsh approaches to difference and need and an over-fixation on profit, performance or some other attribute of work
- A mediocre, flat and lifeless culture of just being OK and under the radar and average and not harmful but not very spectacular or alluring
- A fixed, unmovable decreed culture based on a dominant leader or leaders which whilst seemingly tolerable, is a bit stifling.
- A willing, perhaps even naive sense of willing a fresh, vibrant and relevant culture that moves things forward and brings an appealing nature to a growing, adapting or creative enterprise.
And lots in between. Those people are looking for inspiration. Hoping to have their views, aspirations and designs for culture change validated and added to so they can gain traction.
And some will sit there and say “this is a bit too good to be true”. Not because of over cynicism necessarily, but because we often only get the gloss and none of the fumes.
Let’s face it, cults are where culture has been taken too far. And couture is like looking at the catwalk and thinking — “wow that’s an outrageous interpretation for a suit/dress” but have no inclination to wear it to the next family celebration and will wait for the sanitised and more normalised high-street fashion version.
But this is where couture comes in. We need it.
In order to turn a culture from flat, or dangerous, or stuck or whatever it’s not helpful in being, a bit of couture will stretch the imagination, the art of the possible although may even create a repulsion of the flamboyance of the couture but it’s still embedded in the minds of the culture criminals. And that’ll nag them a bit about what they might be missing out on. Or need to get with.
So we may feel deflated that our hero organisation turned out to be riddled with mediocrity and have some less-than-desirable attributes. Or in the case of Price, a damaging man putting out a championing persona.
But you know what? We/they all have their foibles, blind spots (as I said earlier), weaknesses, misfires and so on. As do we as people.
The perfect image crafted by and for social media is both a representation of SOME of the truth and in the case of Price, covering all manner of sins.
That’s not couture, that’s being a poseur.
My days in the Mod cult (see, I belong to cults) introduced me to the word Poseur. This snappy-dressing, image-conscious youth cult was arguably one of the first to obsess about image building on the hep-cats of the jazz era and the Teddy Boys of the Rock-n-Roll era. A poseur was someone who was absolutely making an overt statement, a monarchic-like stance, and perhaps covering something up at the same time.
The Who’s iconic album/rock opera Quadrophenia — that was made into a film — covered this brilliantly in the song Bellboy. Seemingly the “Ace Face” poseur (played by Sting in the 1979 movie) turned out to be no other than a bellhop to the rich people staying at a high-class Brighton hotel. Not the rebel, fighter, slick stylist portrayed when in his Mod aspect of life.
So couture is important to us in showing the extremities, possibilities and new crafts that are possible in culture. Just as design and art are showing us what’s possible in clothing, interior design and styling for a more replicable and useable manner.
And culture — I won’t even do a definition here as you all know what we mean in your own terms — needs couture to stretch, modernise and dare I say even pivot towards something better, more advanced and evolutionary and reflective of what’s needed in a changing world of work, expectations and choice.
And cults. Beware. Brainwashed, indoctrinated, homogenised. Dangerous obsessive qualities and nature of being that inevitably comes-a-cropper. BUT not after causing harm, falseness and loss.
So I guess the moral of this story is:
- We need couture (in a culture sense) but that doesn’t mean you have to copy, replicate and “lift and shift”. Such stories of cultural couture are meant to inspire and spark concepts that you can make your own.
- Beware the culture poseurs. Too good to be true might mean you’re overly cynical and it might mean there is not enough balance in the stories to make them believable. Don’t be the crying CEO either, but make sure you’re evidence-led, fair, and your story represents the bumps in the carpet. Remember kintsugi the Japanese art of repairing broken crockery using gold. “Don’t just tell us about the gold, why did the crockery break in the first place?”
- Avoid the cult traps. Never challenging what’s going on, always conforming. Denying a sense of difference in favour of celebratory uniformity is not about congruence, it’s about coercion.
- And mostly, culture is alive so be Attenboroughesque about it. It needs exploring, understanding, and studying. It’s never set, always tested and is represented in how you are every day. Like Sir David Attenborough does for the natural world, I advocate narrating culture to bring it to life. I believe that you should be obsessed about it, but in a way, that’s obsessed with checking your state of culture. Not just glibly or blindly celebrating it, denying it, using it in a distorted way to get some ill-gotten gain. If your culture doesn’t feel right, that may need some couture. If it’s broken it needs some serious therapeutic repair and reinvention. If it’s great, don’t become complacent.
Cult: Culture: Couture.
I’ll leave Monique Winston’s quote here as a reminder.