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by Theo Edmonds
Culture Futurist™ | Creativity Strategist | Artist/Poet | Imaginator Academy | Social Brain Capital Builder | WHOAology™
June 1, 2023 ~ First Day of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month
In the labyrinthine realm of corporate America, language is a tormented masquerade, diminished by its feeble attempts to encapsulate the audacious tapestry of human imagination. The tattered lexicon, a relic of industrial factory manuals stumbling through the volatility of progress. The words we use to talk about innovation gasp for breath amidst the cacophony of fluorescent-lit offices flickering uncertainty. Worn carpets striped with clean silhouettes where cubicle walls stood just three years ago. Our innovation language feels increasingly smaller with each passing month, like the words used to describe the memory of an old lover. An outline is there, but with each passing day, it gets harder to remember what filled it out.
Our innovation language is yearning to mold the intangible and transcend the mundane. Yet, its shackled verses echo as jittery psalms searching out a savior in shrines of loneliness. How can mere words harness the electric frenzy of breakthroughs that birth galaxies of possibility? Fully capable, talented, and brilliant executives flail like lost souls, imprisoned by an antiquated jailer, constrained by the unfathomable magnitude of the entrepreneurial spirit that stirs within every single one of us.
The motions and memory muscles from old, learned behaviors are all still operational. But most days, they are meager messengers stumbling around in the wake of a boundless ingenuity just always beyond our reach. We know something meaningful is there. We feel its power. But just like the secret language that liberates the genie from the bottle, a new source code is yet to be revealed.
Love is this source code. Love is the cipher that liberates the story from the stone. The transformative potential of love sparks wonder and shapes our workplaces, communities, and existence. As business leaders struggle to unearth the conspiring edges of culture change with the liberating power of love, many will come to understand the pivotal roles both play in shaping the future. Understanding and choosing are, however, very different tasks.
LOVE IS AN INVITATION FROM ACROSS THE FRONTIER
“If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen… now let the music play!” -RuPaul
Over the past decade or so, in a world plagued by unprecedented change, divisive discord, and the relentless pursuit of profit, there was a brief moment where our humanness seemed to break through the chaos in two words: “Love Wins.” It is not a proclamation but an invitation to a never-ending, imperfect human journey of fierce daily decisions to see ourselves in mirrors of liberation and look outward through windows of possibility. “Love Wins” is powerful language transcending its contemporary hashtag roots and offering profound guidance for us all in the future of work.
Emerging in the early 2010s during the LGBTQ+ marriage equality movement, #LoveWins became a powerful rallying cry, encapsulating the belief that love and equality should triumph over fear and discrimination. Gaining popularity through social media, protests, and advocacy campaigns, #LoveWins embodied hope for a just and inclusive world where individuals can love and be recognized for who they truly are.
RuPaul’s iconic quote underscores the vital connection between self-love and love for others. In this chaotic era, characterized by uncertainty and constant change, leaders of all kinds face a compelling challenge: to adapt and evolve the way we lead. The call is not for heroes or powerhouses but for compassionate, self-aware people equipped with the bravery to change themselves to change the world.
As a leader, what does it mean to change oneself? After 53 years on this planet, experience has taught me that the most accessible and important change we can make is in the questions we choose to ask. A question shapes the story of the answer. A question liberates or confines what is believed to be possible and valuable.
Many leaders have become ensnared by a culture of confinement in the labyrinth of modern business and innovation. This paradigm asks them to play it safe, to color within the lines. These limiting questions, these shackles of the expected and the tried are asked within the echo chamber of our comfort zones, and thus, the organizations they lead give birth to incremental solutions — solutions that are but mere whispers in the grand symphony of possibility. These incremental solutions, these paper boats set adrift on a tempestuous ocean of cultural and technological change, are expected to carry the profound weight of an organization’s grandest ideas. Yet, they falter, wither, and crumble under the enormity of such a task. The brilliance of the organization’s creativity, the audacity of its people’s imagination, the grandeur of its potential — sink into the depths of the mediocre, lost in the sea of the mundane.
LOVE IS TOUGH & UNIVERSAL
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” ― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Our bodies are wired to feel creative tension — the difference between where we are and where we think we want to be. When edges begin dancing with each other, the feeling of creative tension signals that something familiar is about to reshape itself. We feel discovery brewing.
Edges are dynamic crucibles where friction ignites and where innovation first appears. Edges forge bold alliances and unleash a torrent of transformative ideas. When this happens, organizations can easily lose sight of the horizon as they attempt to navigate the myriad of cultural landmines surfacing under their walk. All the direct result of one thing. The thing that Nikky Finney put so profoundly in her 2011 acceptance speech for the National Book Award for Poetry. Namely, “the will of the human heart to speak its own mind.”
We see these edges between heart and mind everywhere in our systems. For example, Creativity and Social Wellbeing in the Workplace are two massive edges every leader is forced to navigate. Even the World Economic Forum’s just released 2023 Future of Jobs report notes that while analytical thinking is considered the top skill we will all need, another cognitive brain skill, creative thinking, ranks second, ahead of three self-efficacy skills — resilience, flexibility, and agility; motivation and self-awareness; and curiosity and lifelong learning.
(Self-efficacy is a fancy term that means having confidence in your skills to overcome challenges and achieve your goals.)
By now, most leaders have seen the data that GEN Z is far less satisfied at work than older generations were at their age, and their mental wellbeing continues to decline. One driver of this is likely the tension they are grappling with between self-love and self-awareness inside old systems with little meaningful guidance to offer.
By 2025, GEN Z will be 20% of the global workforce and exponentially increases going forward. In the realm of corporate leadership for the future of work, this generational culture shift needs a radical reframing from old notions of leadership and success to fresh approaches grounded in the self-awareness that leading with love demands. This principle is beautifully encapsulated in the wisdom drawn from the ongoing LGBTQ+ fight for equality, where the aphorism “know thyself” is revelatory and grounding.
Barbara Gittings, viewed by many as one of the founders of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, saw that “Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts,” reminds us that true leadership extends beyond policy-making and must be genuinely felt and endorsed at the individual and collective level. It’s not enough to enact diversity and inclusion policies; leaders must strive to foster a culture of acceptance and equality permeating every organization layer.
So how does a leader do this? Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black civil rights activist and leader who served as the chief organizer of the historic March on Washington, offered this guiding language: “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” Underlining the need for leaders to be disruptors, unafraid to challenge the status quo. Leaders must be ready to shake up the system, even at the risk of discomfort or pushback.
LOVE OFFERS BALANCE
“You gotta keep your balance, or you fall into the gap / It’s a challenge, but I manage ’cause I’m cautious with the strap / Doin’ damage to your canvas that a doctor cannot patch / See why you don’t want no friction like the back of a matchbook / That I pass as I will forward you and your MacBook / Clothes shows will shut you down before we go-go backwards / Act up, and whether we high or low we gonna get back up…” — Lyrics from “Tightrope” by Janelle Monáe [feat. Big Boi]
Gittings and Bayard are just two insights from the LGBTQ+ community revealing a transformative blueprint for love-led leadership: authenticity in self-identity, genuine commitment to equality, courage in communication, and an unwavering drive to challenge and change systems that exclude some to benefit others. In this context, the essence of “know thyself” becomes a clarion call for leaders to foster self-awareness, authenticity, courage, and disruptive innovation as the cornerstones of their leadership style. However, leadership is only as good as the questions we ask in our innovation processes.
Right now, our focus feels skewed. Our questions seem too small, and the sequencing of the questions seems wrong. Paraphrasing the artist Raghava KK, the question isn’t how good a story can we come up with. The real question is can we live the best story we can tell?
The questions we ask shape the stories we inhabit. We become the stories we tell. In his book Narrative Economics, Nobel economist Robert Shiller documents how powerful stories are in shaping the future. “Popular stories,” he says, “affect individual and collective economic behavior.” Popular, not necessarily true, is the key here. Schiller points out that if the stories we are habituated to tell go on long enough, cultural contagion begins to obscure what is believed to be possible and valuable.
To dream bigger, to innovate further, to truly transform our world, we must dare to ask questions that challenge the confines of our current understanding and thrust us into the realm of the unfathomable. “Love Wins” is not just a slogan. It does not signal competition. Instead, “Love Wins” is an invitational, inclusive lesson in leadership born over generations of struggle, invisible suffering, and heartache… all brought forward to light the way of what’s possible beyond the shackles we place on each other. It is tender and tough. Precious and precise. It is a phrase that carries its own earned sense of belonging with it into the room. Snatching us from the wrenched grind of fear, “Love Wins” restores our sense of wonder.
Wonder-prone people can be transformative in the workplace. They’re adaptable, creative, and always looking for new solutions to old problems. As a result, they ask questions that, at first, can seem odd. But, if you’re with them long enough to understand their context and lived experiences, the questions don’t seem odd in the least. Instead, they seem revelatory and weirdly hyper-practical. The questions come from an earned wisdom over a lifetime of navigating systems not designed for them. The World Economic Forum counts this set of abilities among the top brain skill “must haves” that all of us will need for the future of work.
LEADING WITH LOVE
In contemporary corporate leadership, the concept of leading with love is beginning to gain traction. It’s the idea of leading with empathy, forging an environment where every voice is heard and valued, fostering collaboration, and encouraging innovation.
Love, in its essence, can be a powerful tool for an organization’s journey of discovery and understanding. It is not a static state of being but a dynamic process of becoming. As such, love acts more like a question than an answer. It invites exploration, stirs curiosity, and prompts introspection.
There is evidence that love is good for a company’s innovation return on investment (ROI). Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Business School, has long noted how our personal and professional social environments significantly affect our creativity. By promoting collaboration and embracing transformative creativity, love becomes a valuable and renewable resource for innovators. Moreover, it encourages us to connect with our authentic selves and the world.
Wonder and imagination are fueled by love more than fear. Love opens doors to transformative outcomes, unleashing the full potential of creative exploration. Here’s a high-level comparison.
The strategic shift towards love, away from fear, presents not just an opportunity but a necessity for rejuvenating the source code of American enterprise. Love’s transformative power nurtures innovation, collaboration, and a risk-taking culture; these are the bedrock of rediscovering our sense of wonder. This rekindling is not a frivolous luxury but the key to unlocking unparalleled growth and progress. In the evolving work landscape, businesses that adopt this ethos will foster an environment of exploration and curiosity, driving sustainable success in the uncertain future.
The hallmark of the 21st-century corporation will not be defined by size, scale, or even technology but by the courage to embrace love over fear. Whether it be the great resignation, quiet quitting, commercial real estate, or generative AI, the most important question is not what are we all running from… but what are we running toward?
Only love is capable of holding the weight of the answer without crushing us.
Though some days it may feel hard to imagine, across human history, as true today as it ever was, Only Love Wins!
by Theo Edmonds
Epigraph: “Source code” refers to the human-readable instructions or statements written in a programming language that make up a computer program. It is the original form of a computer program before it is translated or compiled into machine code that a computer can execute.
I met your life.
It was looking at me strongly.
It gave me pause.
Across a crowded screen of binary code,
I met your life.
Muscle tensions bound us inside
this digital place of ricochet
(A digital twitch of collective, unprocessed grief.)
I met your life.
It was so familiar to me.
Then, I began to smile.
A smile stretching from then into now
Showing up as a conversational revelation.
A glitchy mirror in a Love Emitting Diode.
An old friend.
An old, particular friend,
A shoeless old smile
reflecting lyrical ripples in an Appalachian creek.
Wind and mud moving through toes.
An accent-rich lyricism carried in stories
ponderous and sprightly in their circling
back and forth
between holler and digital heaven.
pressing time together
to discover cadence.
Fireflies transformed into
a momentary hand lantern.
A glowing, quantum flit
harboring flaws and radiance.
Ah! There you are…
right where we left us.
When I saw you.
I smiled like that again.
Sources Used for Shaping Article: