Dan Pink: The Reincarnation of Kierkegaard?

Many years ago, I spent four intense years studying philosophy at the University of Copenhagen’s Open University. The focus of my study was the most prominent of Danish philosophers, Soeren Kierkegaard. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Father of Existentialism was that he published his first book at 25, and each succeeding book was an extension of the thoughts of the first book. Kierkegaard claimed that his 20 books were all planned before he wrote the first one.

Kierkegaard was an ardent advocate of individual free will and responsibility. His work heavily influenced Jean-Paul Sartre and the French existentialists, as well as Carl Jung, Victor Frankl, and Erich Fromm. Much of his work was a counterpoint to the work of Hegel and Marx and their ideas of historic inevitability.

In a recent review of the work of Dan Pink, I was struck by the parallel in his work regarding one book building on the other. I have no idea if Dan has a Kiekegaardian vision of his next 20 books, but he seems to be well on the way. Judging by his work thus far, he stands out as one of the best predictors of the future of work.

Dan’s three major books show an extremely prescient path of organizational evolution in America. His first book, Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself (2002) describes the movement by business away from hiring employees, and replacing them with contract workers. Rather than whine about this trend, Dan advocates leveraging the change by building your own resume, and becoming a Free Agent. Today he encourages companies to treat those Free Agents at least as well as they would an employee.

In A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future (2006), he chronicles the acceptance of design as a strategic determinant in product development. He explains the right/left brain fusion, and the emphasis on design precluding engineering (see also Steve Jobsby Walter Isaacson). Dan advocates for more attention to the creative process, and those who possess the ability to visualize the final product from an end-user perspective.

Building on those thoughts, Dan’s latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2010) purports to be about motivation. Indeed, he builds a compelling case for recognizing that money and bonuses are counterproductive for creative workers. Most of the press about this book, including brilliant YouTube videos, focuses on this part of the book.

Much like Kierkegaard, the deeper underlying messages in all three books has been generally ignored. The much more significant revelations in Drive are:

1)      A description of the Conceptual Worker – a person who not only possesses the skills to accomplish a task, but understands the relevance of that task to the larger vision of the enterprise.

2)      The movement in organizational structure from Information Workers (skillset) toConceptual Workers (mindset); allowing organizations to hire fewer workers at a higher level.

3)      Implementation of Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), which eliminates the need for over-the-shoulder supervision of the workforce.

What this means in practical terms, of course, is a major shift from management to leadership. Indeed, Dan writes in Drive “Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word ‘management’ into the linguistic ash heap alongside ‘icebox’ and ‘horseless carriage.’ This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” Kierkegaard would have loved this sentiment, reflecting conceptual workers willingly exercising free will and accepting responsibility for the outcome of their choices.

Much of what Dan has written has been widely discussed. Unfortunately, very few organizations have courage to fully embrace the cultural upheaval necessary for the transition to visionary leadership, personal responsibility for results, consequences for those who do not meet agreed upon expectations, and an emphasis on creating teams where failure is not an option (see Green Beret Leadership).

The final conundrum in the Dan Pink universe is where to find the conceptual workers we need. Please note that Dan intentionally uses the phrase conceptual worker not conceptual thinker.We are talking about people who can both think and implement! Where do we find them? Dan suggests liberal arts schools. He writes “The new MBA is the MFA.”

That is a good start. My experience in creating dynamic organizations leads me to believe that all of us with leadership responsibility must accept a much more active role in mentoring and developing talent. We are all in the race to acquire great talent. How do we find and keep them? Mainly through intense investment in their development, with a careful monitoring of the corresponding ROI.

So, is Dan Pink the reincarnation of Soeren Kierkegaard? I have no idea what Dan’s next book will explore and explain. My sincere hope is that it will, like Kierkegaard, be a further extension of his current body of work. I rely on him to keep us focused on the truly vital trends in the rapid transformation of our work culture.

David Belden

Professional Outsider

ExecuVision International


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