There is a delightful scene in Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris, where the legendary Gertrude Stein—played by actress Kathy Bates—lays out her philosophy of life, art and literature. “We all fear death and question our place in the universe,” she explains. “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote to the emptiness of existence.”
Miss Stein, as her followers called her, had enormous social and creative influence in the first three decades of the 20th century, as a muse to many of the great painters, novelists and poets of her time. The informal “salon” she ran from her home in Paris was frequented by artists such as Braque, Picasso, Joan Miró, and Henri Matisse. The list of writers who looked to her for guidance—luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Thornton Wilder—was perhaps even more impressive.
The protagonist of Midnight in Paris is an aspiring American author, Gil Pender, who journeys back through time each night at midnight, for encounters with writers from the famous “lost generation” of expatriates in the 1920s. We see historic Paris in its “golden years” through his eyes as he meets a variety of colorful characters from the past, spending time particularly with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein.
In the scene I reference above, Miss Stein encourages Pender to strike a more upbeat and optimistic tone in his work. Both in his perspective and his prose, she would like him to present, as any artist should in her view, an antidote to the emptiness of human existence. As she tells the young writer: “You have a clear and lively voice. Don’t be such a defeatist.”
Now, without waxing too philosophical myself, I would contend that Gertrude Stein’s advice applies not just to literature but to all of life, and certainly to management in our organizations. If we take a broad, long-term view, we understand that our lives have no inherent meaning. Rather, it is we who give meaning to the things in our lives, whatever they may be.
So, could we say that the role of middle managers is offering an antidote to the drudgery of corporate existence? Of course, I do not mean to say, or even imply, that all jobs in the middle of organizations are not satisfying. However, one cannot help but notice the multitude of articles in recent years about the frustrations of those who feel “stuck in the middle” of sizable firms.
Recently, as I was preparing a keynote speech for a corporate offsite, the client told me that one of their current goals was encouraging managers throughout the organization to take the lead in their groups rather than wait for direction from above. (Though the situation of this company is quite different, it did make me think a bit of Thomas Watson and the wild ducks.) They asked me if I could address two words that they are emphasizing at the moment: freedom and responsibility.
As it turns out, it was relatively easy for me to include these two terms, as they are concepts that I often use in my own work. For, more than we tend to realize, we do have the freedom to design and co-create our group’s culture, regardless of what is happening above us in the company.
And, I believe that we are indeed responsible for the working environments we construct. We all have a responsibility to our teams to create a space where people willingly participate and express themselves, where they contribute their talent, energy and passion. If we succeed in doing this, people will come to feel a part of something meaningful and worthwhile.
As Gertrude Stein might have said had she been a management consultant, an important part of our role as managers is to provide an alternative to the inherent hopelessness of the human condition.
Image: Flickr-user D1v1d