Stefan, what inspired you to initiate The Argonauts in the first place?
I have been an entrepreneur all my life, building companies and, with them, personal, social and business relationships. I have met so many amazing people throughout my life, people with whom I wanted to stay in touch regularly. As a long-time member of YPO I have benefited greatly from this amazing global community.
However, I and many others perceived that their membership requirements exclude many great leaders and innovators. My goal has been to bring together inspiring people not limited only to founders of businesses with a minimum business size and age limitations. I wanted to form a community that complements organizations such as YPO and others. A community based on universal virtues of mutual trust and respect, no matter the age or business size.
My team and I looked around and saw that existing leadership organizations were failing to take on the challenge in a holistic way. Today we see a crisis of leadership, where some 85% of corporate transformations — look at Kodak, Nokia, Bayer, Monsanto or even a national transformation like Brexit — fail, and fail spectacularly. It’s not a stretch to trace it back to leaders who lack vision, courage, and the foresight to creatively transform their teams and work processes. We’ve transitioned from different stages of the industrial revolution to an attention economy, and from linear factories to complex ecosystems in a VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
Despite the realities of the VUCA world, many organizations remain in the same old hierarchical, egocentric, technocratic style of leadership and management that proves time and again to be disastrous to organizations. And yet our business schools, consultancies, and trainers continue to teach methods that lead, almost inevitably, to failure.To keep repeating a losing formula and expecting a successful outcome is, as we know, a sign of insanity.
I initiated the Argonauts with the vision of creating a selective network of global leaders to address and solve the complex challenges we face in the digital age on an endangered planet. The name Argonauts is derived from the Hellenistic myth which dates back twenty-five hundred years. It recounts the mythical tale of Jason and his band of Greek heroes embarking on a voyage aboard the ship, Argo, to retrieve the Golden Fleece. We like to use Jason’s journey on Argo as an analogy to the leadership development journey of our people today. This is because the myriad of challenges our leaders face today- both professional and personal- are nothing short of navigating through a turbulent sea-storm.
Could you explain the evolution of the Argonauts over the past 4 or 5 years?
The truth is that The Argonauts emerged out of personal and professional crisis. These days our friends and colleagues are spread around the world, and I wanted to find ways to bring together the people whom I respected to engage with them in a regular peer-to-peer experience sharing format that I had come to know and value at YPO.
I got together with similar-minded friends to brainstorm together how we could bring such a community to life. In the first two years we reached out to a small circle of trusted Founding members all over the world, maybe 25, exploring how to take the Forum concept digital and combine it with the learning journeys that we as successful entrepreneurs, business leaders, and investors had experienced in our lives.
We created a digital Trust Circle and began formalizing some of the best practices we had collectively learned. In occasional retreats and online meetings, we pooled our knowledge and resources from the venture builder we had created to test this idea. We developed an online platform accessible to all members after they filled out comprehensive assessment surveys. At first, we kept The Argonauts a close secret and restricted growth to ensure that we got the formula and the tools right before rolling it out to a wider audience.
By 2017 and 2018, we had grown to about 100 people from across the globe. We used a scientific approach to network-building, and conducted diligent testing. We noticed that there was both virality and a strong network effect. The leaders who joined wanted to share their knowledge and experiences and also invited their closest colleagues to bring their own leadership teams. We resisted hypergrowth while developing the platform, and took time to refine our assessment and measurement techniques. We spent a great deal of time tweaking the concept of aliveness that we see at the core of leadership transformation.
Since the beginning of the year, the pace has intensified and demand to join has increased to a dramatic extent. We’re trying not to be overwhelmed by the growth and we are laser-focused on the quality of what we’re offering and the quality of the people who are joining us. We’re professionalizing our assessments, refining our mobile app, and preparing for more Trust Circles.
Did you plan for this kind of spectacular growth?
To be candid, we never planned for The Argonauts to grow so large, so fast. We believe that much of the growth stems from the desire of leaders to have real and sustainable impact on leadership in our world. We need to reach a critical mass so that we can tackle together the huge challenges — political, environmental, technological — that we face as human beings on our endangered planet.
Eventually, at one of our events last year in Berlin, together with our founding members, we decided it was time to welcome new members and offer more people the amazing benefits we have developed over the last years. In effect. we opted to go slowly public as an organization and begin publishing our experiences, our methodology and our philosophy, in the spirit of transparency.
How, in practice, would the Argonauts community evolve and grow?
Even 5 years ago I had in mind, generally speaking, the kinds of people who would fit well together and would benefit from each other’s experiences. We got together regularly to exchange experiences about personal and entrepreneurial challenges, and our mutual trust and reliance on each other deepened along the way. If someone needed a contact anywhere in the world, one of us always knew the right person.
Over time we professionalized the tools and methods we were using. Once we decided to open up the community to a broader public we could rely on the processes and infrastructure of the Argo Venture Studio. We took the first hundred recommendations of current members and sent them through the assessment. If there was a general fit, we would reach out to interview them.
What are the purposes of that community and the mission of the Argonauts?
We are a community for courageous leaders and their organizations. We aim to create a global community that nurtures transformative leaders. Often, “nurture” is associated with children and the love and giving of a parent to raise that child. In our case we are dealing with leaders who are strong in their fields yet may have lost touch with their inner aliveness, compassion, and mindfulness. These days companies disappear off the face of the earth because they lack these values and become dead inside.
We want to inspire and manifest human aliveness in leaders in the digital age because these are the values that enable people with the greatest potential to transform themselves and the people around them, then their organizations as a whole, and finally to go beyond their own companies and industries to transform the world.
The Argonauts’ mission is to create and harmonize personal, business and relationship prosperity in a global community and through transformational experiences.
We foster human-centered, virtue-based dialogues and collaboration among members, free from judgmental language or egotism.
We live in times where emotional intelligence is the most important asset of any individual and any organization. Our community is founded on mutual trust and respect, the basic requirements for emotional intelligence to flourish. We believe that life can be most prosperous for oneself and others when three main criteria are satisfied: Personal fulfillment, professional achievement and mutually fulfilling relationships. For these areas we have built what we call “Trust Circles.” These circles begin with the leader and often have a ripple effect, like a stone tossed into a quiet lake. Our vision is to cultivate aliveness in the world’s most influential leaders so that they are moved to act and moved toward a deeper sense of prosperity measured not just by money but a sense of fulfillment and purpose.
Are the Argonauts on a business mission, a social mission, a cultural mission, or… ?
Our mission is really a blend of all three: business, social, and cultural. We want to change how leaders lead. An example is introducing new thinking among leaders to break with the centuries-old paradigm that corporations are machines organized as strict hierarchies with little regard for the human beings who comprise them.
We are developing a philosophy promoting what we call “horticultural leadership” and “corporate gardening” in which leaders manage their companies as one would tend a garden. We seek to empower them to be the best leaders they could ever be, in personal interaction, in management operations, as well as in their entrepreneurial endeavors. The Argonauts is the first collaborative peer-to-peer community nurturing courageous leaders through transformational experiences.
How are you channeling the huge talents of your “heroes” for productive outcomes? How are these transformational experiences achieved in practice?
Our global network is continually expanding, but from the start we have been more concerned with quality rather than quantity. The amazing backgrounds of our Founding Members, their knowledge and their connections, have led us to meet many potential Argonauts, who approach us or have been recommended to us as candidates. We conduct an intensive screening process, which can take months, making sure we only accept the most engaged and alive members who are ready to contribute their best to the network.
Once accepted as Argonauts, our members gain access to what we call “Trust Circles”. For many members, this is a core value and benefit of being an Argonaut. Each of these is a small group, usually 8, of selected members and a trained facilitator, who help each other on a regular basis for personal and professional development, supporting their development as individuals and leaders of their organizations as part of a structured process of leadership transformation.
They confide their challenges to each other with a candor that is often lacking elsewhere in our lives. We also offer specific programs for targeted business development and accelerated network building, providing a kind of concierge service that matches people based on potential for mutual benefit.
It is important to note that we don’t just match people with those most like them. Diversity is a critical quality in the formula for fulfilling and mutually beneficial relationships. Speaking with others from everywhere in the world, from all sorts of industries, ages, and cultures has a tremendous value and impact on leaders. Learning from peers who have had different experience, learning from different points of views — all of these add perspective and depth to leadership development and they are integral to an Argonaut’s unique and transformative experience.
You co-founded the Young Presidents Organization chapter in Berlin and you’ve been deeply involved with leadership and entrepreneurial organizations. How do The Argonauts differ?
YPO and others such as EO are fantastic organizations, and certainly we are not in competition with them. On the contrary, we seek to be complementary and synergistic with these organizations and their members. It is a great advantage to be a member of other leadership organizations.
Our membership criteria are no less exclusive but ours are not limited by age, gender, or by the size of your company or the specific leadership role. We draw upon people from all walks of life: artists and philosophers as well as entrepreneurs and business people. What’s important to us are several key criteria: (1) the ability to lead, (2) to be open-minded and cosmopolitan, (3) to have the capacity to inspire others, (4) to lead growing an organization and hold growth as a core value, and (5) to exert a positive influence on the world.
Unlike YPO or other leadership organizations, the Argonauts bring some unique value propositions:
- We offer a singular, overarching methodology and learning system to nurture transformative leaders.
- Our groups are truly global, and merge the digital and face-to-face interactions.
- Our membership criteria are based not just on company size or personal net worth but on values, personal character, and professional accomplishment.
- We are open to scholars, artists, and innovators, not just business leaders.
- We address, head-on, the challenges associated with solicitation, a side-effect that often complicates the experience in communities that should be laser-focused on personal and professional growth.
- We take an active role in connecting our members with each other, leveraging our huge network to orchestrate the matching and engagement process, accompanying the process to optimize outcomes for our members.
We are creating a global organization that leverages technology to connect people who may not live in the same locations. It is a huge difference to pool together experiences from people from all over the world in all their diversity, and — unlike other leadership organization — we are truly globally oriented and not organized around local chapters. We nurture personal growth and help our members achieve success and build great relationships within our community, and reaching out to others to have real impact on our businesses and our shared world. Covering all these aspects of human existence, and helping our members strike a healthy balance among personal, social and professional responsibilities is something we — unlike other networks — focus on as a core value.
We are also cultivating experiences in offline events, learning journeys and peer exchanges facilitated digitally. All this follows not only a vision, purpose and values but engenders a unique mindset, a new way of thinking based on a distinctive overarching philosophy that we call the Argosophy. I believe this is in fact the most important differentiator.
We are developing a unique and revolutionary philosophy, guided by Dr. Christoph Quarch, a renowned thinker who is inspiring a whole new value system and perspective on moral issues. The Argonauts community — led by a think tank, the Third Platonic Academy — is creating a new way of thinking that comes to guide the lives of Argonauts. From scarcity to abundance, from empty routines to fulfillment and vitality, and from superficial acquisitions of things to deeply experienced emotional prosperity, we are all about growth and evolution as individuals and as leaders.
How do you empower entrepreneurs? Or do the leaders power each other? What about artists or scholars or regular working stiffs? Can they also join your heroic crew of the Argonauts?
We started with a core of entrepreneurial leaders as members, founders and C-level executives, but from the start our members have included a broader set of leaders: philosophers, scholars, professional and really anyone who possesses the qualities of aliveness, engagement, commitment, and concern for others and the planet we share. While many of our members are people of means, we do not exclude anyone on economic grounds. We have scholarships to assist people who are driven by values and virtues and who manifest human aliveness and fulfillment to the world, whether or not they are millionaires or billionaires.
Here’s a tough one, Stefan. Most of us are running around just trying to get our jobs done and have a little time left over for ourselves and our families. How do you justify creating a new community when there are others are already out there?
It’s not an easy answer, but for me it all comes down to our singular pursuit of aliveness. There is time, and there is quality time. There are times when we just go through the motions like zombies, and there are other times when we feel truly alive — whether at work, for ourselves, and for our families. What I found in my long entrepreneurial and business career, and what so many others I know have experienced as well, is that material success is simply not enough. You can accumulate wealth and build great organizations, and still feel personally and professional unfulfilled or, at least, not really living fully or prospering at the deepest and most satisfying level.
And there’s another dimension. To be fully alive and truly successful — as a person and as a professional — you just can’t do it alone. You need to have circles of trusted peers who accompany you and assist you on your journey. Someone who can strengthen you on the basis of mutual trust and mutual respect. The unique Trust Circles of the Argonauts are a kind of secret sauce at the heart of our endeavor, and I really think you just can’t can get it in any other way to this degree. The Argonauts — in our philosophy, our values and our methodologies — are all about orchestrating, implementing and facilitating this level of trust and support for courageous leaders in a way that is absolutely unique. And it’s not just for the leaders: their responsibility is to impart this aliveness, this value in living and working, to the people they lead, and to inspire them to become “alive” leaders as well.
So coming back to your question: Let me answer with a question myself: Wouldn’t you prefer to invest your time sharing your innermost thoughts with a group of people who help you feel truly alive — not just in that moment of engagement but as a takeaway that carries over into your personal, family and social moments, that impacts your employees and business colleagues — rather than just trying to satisfy short-term cravings or hitting a financial mark for the next quarter?
How is one selected to join the community?
We created the “Friends of the Argonauts” as an inclusive movement of courageous transformational leaders and those who want to become one. Then there are the “Argonauts”, the very core of this community movement who are part of our Trust Circles. Tasked with inspiring transformation in global leadership, they support the greater community through deep sharing of experiences and knowledge and have taken leadership in the direction of our united future as Argonauts.
We are very careful in selecting the right people for both levels. This is not because we are snobs but because we have learned that the Argonauts are not for everyone. We want to make sure there is a good fit, authenticity, and a sense of mutual belonging. Above all, we seek people that are committed, whom we can mutually trust and respect. This is essential so that the subsequent intensive sharing of time, knowledge and connections — which is at the core of our process — works and flows in a natural way. We’ve been putting a lot of value into each member. Every Argonaut knows how rigorous the selection process was and can be reassured about the high caliber of their peers.
Will an investment of time and money by the Argonauts save them time and money, or give them other tangible benefits? What is the real return on investment for members?
In our experience so far, roughly speaking, our members experience 2x more growth, 3x more innovation, 5x more resourcefulness when dealing with situations of stress and crisis, and substantially more meaningful relationships. This alone makes the investment of time and money worthwhile. Some of the benefits cannot be easily gauged by conventional metrics but we are continually developing and evaluating methods to measure the real-world outcomes of our members.
The Global Chief of Strategy of one of the top global clothing brands says that “when life is getting turbulent, the Argonauts is my oxygen mask.” And one of our members who is a well known tech founder, calls The Argonauts’ approach “as disruptive to leadership as blockchain is to traditional finance.” So whether you’re a C-level corporate executive, manage HR, or a tech entrepreneur, our value proposition is perceived not as a marginal advantage but as a vital one essential for success, transformation and prosperity in the deepest sense. It is seen as keeping members alive, and feeling more alive than ever before.
What is truly essential is this: The Argonauts inspire and manifest aliveness in leaders who dare to dream beyond the bottom line. For sure, we help our members foster growth, generate wealth, and make valuable professional and personal connections for themselves and their organizations with far more impact than they could do by themselves.
Once you reach a certain level of material success, you realize that professional achievements may be necessary for worklife satisfaction, but are not sufficient for happiness and self-fulfillment. The feeling of being fully alive — in our words, “human aliveness” — emerges through the harmonized unification of three aspects of entrepreneurial leadership, all unified in an ecosystem of courageous leaders who share wisdom, meaning, and passion for life.
Members tell us that the value of our Trust Circles — in which Argonauts have regular, frank, even intimate, conversations with other top leaders from around the globe and form real, intimate, long-lasting relationships — justifies the time and money invested tenfold. In our engagement circles you can boost your network with personally recommended contacts or engage our executive concierge service to connect you with contacts in companies or in industries that you select. Already we command a network of tens of thousands of leaders from all disciplines, industries, geographies, and walks of life. There’s really nothing comparable out there.
It sounds like the Argonauts aims to teach skills and provide resources for helping leaders to create and manage leadership communities of their own. Is that part of your agenda?
Yes. We are not serving fish dinners but providing master classes to improve the fishing skills of our Argonauts. That’s an important skill when you are out at sea on a long voyage! We are empowering our members to build their own crews within their companies, for their clients, and for the causes they support. This ties back to our own social and cultural mission and vision: to inspire aliveness in all human beings, leaders and potential leaders out there.
We are not aiming to create an insular, closed club but rather an open-minded, constantly expanding engine for fostering aliveness and helping our members, individually and collectively, exert a real, sustainable, and constructive impact on the world, each tackling the challenges and pursuing the goals about which they are most passionate.
What is your vision for the Argonauts over the next 5 years?
The Argonauts starts and ends with the cooperation and mutual engagement of individuals striving to improve themselves and our shared world. We have more than 500 members being recommended to us on a monthly basis and this number is growing constantly, while the waiting lists have outgrown available memberships by far. Our focus now is on interviewing and filtering candidates to build our network with courageous leaders who share our vision and seek to achieve aliveness and prosperity in their personal and professional lives. Those who were invited and have questions should reach out to us. We just ask that they be patient as we screen previous candidates.