Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Long and Short of Hard and Soft. Thanks Wes!

Based on a flood of recent experiences I'm writing to share my perspective on the line between Hard and Soft. When it comes to directing imperfect humans, unfortunately it is only imperfect humans who can guide the way, and depending on how much needs to be achieved, different levels of pressure and discipline compete with the status quo. What I say aims to be universal for life in general, but take into consideration I am looking through an MBA filter. Apply what I say to management at your own risk, thought it's a risk I happily share.

This post opens with a sketchbook image from July of 2002 that serves to contrast between the hard and soft. After returning to the US from the trip across Asia and Europe that changed my life, I studied "Christ Presenting the Ring to Alexandria" by Peter Paul Reubens in contrast with a Mastodon skull, both on display at the Museum of Texas Tech University while I was visiting my parents back in Lubbock, Texas. I thought the contrast between the ultimate empathy of Christ and the skull of a prehistoric beast was fitting.

As we all attempt to transcend our inner prehistoric beast to achieve the enlightenment of Christ's teachings, this blog post will take you from a quote from the Dalai Lama to the closing chapter of Social Entrepreneurship: New Models of Sustainable Social Change by Alex Nicholls. Then we jump into the priceless American Express ad by Wes Anderson as a metaphor for what a potential solution looks like.

"If the basic human nature was aggressive we would have been born with animal claws and huge teeth - but ours are very short, very pretty, very weak! That means we are not well equipped to be aggressive human beings. ... So I think the basic nature of human beings should be gentle." - His Holiness the Dalai Lama
(sketch above from the Dalai Lama's talk in Sydney, Australia, December 3, 2009 entitled "Our Future: Who is Responsible?")

As the Dalai Lama points out, it is not in our nature to be violent. Fair enough. But where do you draw the line between a productive sense of assertive dominance and its negative twin, violent energy? I'm reminded of how Giorgio Vasari describes the expression Michelangelo gave to the face of his David sculpture. The expression on David's face is known as terribilitá. It is a savage expression of focus and determination. It is the look of someone's sheer will, held up as heavy artillery against the opposing odds.

Now that we are talking about Michelangelo's David, I can bring Gianlorenzo Bernini's David into the conversation. If Michelangelo's David has terribilitá, Bernini's David has verriterribilitá. Keep in mind that David is facing down Goliath. Michelangelo's David looks like he's trying to pick up at a gay bar, while Bernini's David looks like he's in the middle of fighting the odds and actually battling a giant. The point is that there is classical beauty in the ferocity of determination, and that I have a preference for Bernini. I struggle with the first part (you rock, Bernini!), as I decide when to express my own inner ferocity or terribilitá.

As much as the religious right may hate to admit it, often there are shades of gray, and I think that's the answer to how terribilitá can be expressed. As Alex Nicholls compiles in Social Entrepreneurship: New Models of Sustainable Social Change, there is a sliding scale between hard and soft when it comes to business. As much as my American mush-mouth makes it harder for me, it remains true: money talks and bullshit walks. Money can shout or whisper, but bullshit is just bullshit. Whether the energy regards the soft edge of a non-profit business or the hard-edge of a financially driven hedge fund, shouting may carry substance, and a whisper can hold great value. If the business isn't sound, then a shout becomes a tantrum and whisper a zephyr.

In David's case, terribilitá expresses the business of defense. And when it comes to the general business climate in the world today, it's a war zone out there. If I don't defend myself and my ideas through vigilant action, someone can overpower me and determine my reality. Those who work the hardest and create the most give the rest of us something to consume in our relative passivity.

To show you what I'm talking about without wasting more words, you gotta see the American Express commercial with Wes Anderson. I love this man. He has the ferocity of someone on a mission from God, and is surrounded by creative people who take his call to action seriously. This is terribilitá at its best. You can see the hard and the soft in a brilliantly orchestrated balance of creative bliss. Thanks for pointing the way, Wes.

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