Somewhere in his storeroom of ideas, Richard Olivier keeps a bag of words that can still send a frisson of anxiety around the boardrooms of Western corporations … words like heart and soul and imagination.
“Now – perhaps for the first time in recorded history – Business actually needs what the Arts have to offer in order to survive,” he writes in his book Inspirational Leadership.
“Creativity, imagination, flexibility, adaptability, effective communication, visionary tendencies and apparent insecurity have always been the staple diet of artists; and organizations are beginning to realize that the Arts have more to offer them than a night out or a sponsorship opportunity.”
That book was first published fifteen years ago. If anything, says Olivier, the need to bring heart and soul into corporate life is ever more urgent.
“The situation we’re in is getting more and more uncertain. People are now casting VUCA as the new normal – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. But VUCA was a term coined by the American military to capture what happens in the heat of battle. And in a soldier’s life, that represented perhaps just five per cent of his working time.”
“As an organizational metaphor, we talk about VUCA operating a hundred per cent of the time and no one is questioning that. I believe it’s only a deep imaginative capacity that leads one to be able to respond rather than react.”
At Oxford University’s Said Business School – where Olivier is an Associate Fellow – there is a strategic leadership course that includes master classes with a choir, a novelist, a painter and Olivier himself exploring the soul of Hamlet. “On a deeper level, I think this reminds these leaders of their essential humanity. A leader without a heart is unlikely to leave their people and their world a better place.”
During FRED Forum in Barcelona, Olivier will run a workshop based on The Tempest, first performed around 1611, not long before Shakespeare’s death. “The Tempest is essentially about leading change and transformation both at the inner level of what needs to change inside the leadership and the external level of what needs to change in the world.”
Son of the British actors Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, Richard Olivier is an accomplished theatre director in his own right. He also has a deep interest in developmental psychology and has been a leading voice of the Men’s Movement in the United Kingdom.
Around twenty years ago, he decided to devote his professional life to exploring how drama and myth could be used to reawaken a sense of purpose, authenticity and integrity in organizations and individual leaders. In 1999, Olivier told the London Times: “Now I feel that everything my father has stood for is helping me to do the work I’m involved in, the work that I feel I was born to do.”
Something close to magical happens, he told me, when you bring together rich poetry like Shakespeare and archetypical psychology. “That’s the struggle: reimagining the work we’re doing because we want it to have deeper and more lasting impact.”
Olivier says the leaders we choose to spend our working lives with will be critical for the future of the planet.
“We are at a time that requires radical transformation, to me second only in the last thousand years to the Renaissance. That rebirth or evolution of consciousness happened as a result of a unique meeting of new emerging technologies backed by by very ancient wisdom. There was a huge explosion of interest in the notion of the soul of the world; ancient wisdom fused with new technologies in printing, in shipping, etc.
“What I am feeling my way into is that this shift is being mirrored in our time. Something needs to happen to take us out of our industrial growth mindset with its capitalist, materialist impulses that think about the world as just a barrel of resources or a machine not to care about.
“New sciences out there will change the world, but it is essential that new technologies are married with soul if we are genuinely going to be able to make something of our future.”
We have, he says, gone beyond passive acceptance of greed and political lies. “It’s getting to a place where there is a fundamental distrust with almost every structure that has attempted to guide humanity since the end of the Second World War.”
Olivier describes himself as an optimist, but believes our future is in the balance. “I don’t think it’s a given we will survive. Perhaps hope lies at the other side of collapse.
“On a bad day, I don’t see many green shoots. But I do have a trust that somewhere in the depths of humanity there is some kind of evolutionary purpose we need to discover. We’ve got to be better than this. Surely fifty thousand years of evolution is not just leading us to Donald Trump.”