What Jeffrey Lebowski Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

“The Dude!”, “El Duderino”, “His Dudeness”, of course there is only one man who answers to all these titles and he is Jeffrey Lebowski, central character of the Coen brothers film classic of 1998, The Big Lebowski. This week I offer “The Dude” as one of the more unlikely yet profound mentors for those of us involved with the workplace environmental factors that contribute to employee engagement.

Sometimes the muse eludes me and sometimes she literally slaps me in the forehead. Last week was a “slap in the forehead” kind of week. Wednesday as I eagerly checked the mail I found that my copy of ‘The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies’ had finally arrived from Amazon. (You know something is up when you go to place an order for this type of publication and it is on Back Order) Then Saturday evening as my wife and I sat having dinner in a Mt. Vernon public house the restaurant was suddenly flooded by a cadre of men in blue bathrobes, shorts, flip-flops and dark glasses, and it is January in northern Washington! (The local classic film theatre had just shown The Big Lebowski and in apt homage this crowd had attended in costume) Finally, Sunday morning as I sat in services at my church of preference listening to harrowing stories of women around the world overcoming cultural oppression it was no longer possible for me to ignore the obvious signs I have been receiving. It is time for a post on authenticity* and there is no one who had a keener sense of the truly authentic than Jeffrey Lebowski aka “The Dude”.

As Victor Hugo asserted many years back, “Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” If I had wondered further whether or not this post would be timely I had only to do a quick blog search on Sunday evening on “The Dude” to be informed that ‘The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski’ will open this spring off-Broadway in NYC with an initial six week schedule. Yes, the signs favoring a focus on authenticity are many and like yellow Volkswagen Beetles, now that I am looking for them I can clearly see they are everywhere.

When he first came into our lives, “The Dude” was not well received either by critics or at the box office, and even to this day he suffers what might be considered an image problem, he is not a mainstream character. Many of us, upstanding, solid character types might have considerable difficulty admitting our identification with a man who at first exposure seems at best the classic “slacker” our parents raised us not to be. And so this prophet of our times has languished in something of a cinematic obscurity slowly gathering what is known as a cult following that now conducts an annual conclave in Louisville, Kentucky known as Lebowski Fest, currently heading into its 9th annual renewal from austere beginnings in 2002. What stronger endorsement can there be for authenticity and efficacy than sustainability?

Jeffrey Lebowski, everything about the man serves as an outright rejection of that in us and our organizations which is not authentic. His personification may be somewhat easier to address if we consider him not literally but as an extreme expression of every employee, if they did not fear retribution for their honesty. “The Dude” eliminates the oppression of this fear by staying gainfully unemployed and simply not giving a crap. For many of us this is just too much honesty! Absent his respect “The Dude”, like many of our employees, is not above using us for his own purposes thereby perpetuating the notion that in fact the best we can expect from that relationship called employment is a sort of sad, smirking conspiracy where "I’ll use you and you’ll use me" and mediocre is what we’ll settle for, as long as we make our numbers.

If we cannot take our guidance from man who shops for milk at midnight in his bathrobe then maybe we’ll listen to legitimate types, James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II. These are the authors of ‘Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want’** (And is it such a big leap to also say further, what employees really want?) Gilmore and Pine go to great pains in their book to expose us to what “The Dude” simply lived as a matter of personal expression. “His Dudeness” stated an unequivocal rejection of the inauthentic as an outright form of violence with the memorable words “This aggression will not stand Man!” As academics and researchers, Gilmore and Pine seem compelled to verbosity and taxonomy (‘Authenticity’ is nearly 300 pages and gives us five genres of Authenticity to consider) but they do provide legitimacy to the conversation;

  • Natural authenticity- raw, of-the-earth, rustic, stripped down and best of all sustainable
  • Original authenticity- the first of its kind
  • Exceptional authenticity- stresses uniqueness, the aesthetic appeal, not like anything else
  • Referential authenticity- evokes an iconic time, person, group or place
  • Influential authenticity-implies or provokes change

If your place of work does not have the appeal of one or more of these categories you can be sure neither Gilmore, Pine nor “The Dude” would be found there, at least not for very long.

* Many thanks to Dwight Garner, book critic for the New York Times. His piece on November 29th, 2009 was the original inspiration for this post.

** If you are interested in an executive summary of ‘Authenticity’ send me an e mail to [email protected]

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