Tom Peters On Excellence: Chairmen of the bored

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'THERE is no sense in saying something unless you tee somebody off,' a male executive once told me. Just another case of testosterone speaking? Perhaps - but I think not. My objective in general - and in this column in particular - is to irritate. The times are far from bland, but you can't say that about most managers and their organisations. Consider, then, these fighting words:

'Accept anything but a tepid response.' This was one of the commandments laid down for budding teachers by the late Notre Dame professor Frank O'Malley. Unfortunately, many of us tolerate tepid. Most meetings are tepid. Most corporate offices are tepid. Not surprisingly, most strategies, products and services turn out tepid.

I don't mean to champion verbal abuse. I do mean to stamp out what Jane Jacobs, the urban planner, calls 'the Great Blight of Dullness'. How about taking a pledge? Starting now, your questions won't be tepid and you won't accept tepid replies. If a day passes without a startling idea crossing your path, start worrying - and consider yourself a second-rate manager for having induced stupefaction in the ranks.

'(To) try something you can't do. To try and fail, then try it again. That to me is success. My generation will be judged by the splendour of our failures.' So wrote William Faulkner. All progress stems from failure, be it economic, personal, artistic or scientific. Yet how many of us are failure seekers? Or, more important, seekers of splendid failures? I'm sick and tired of the twentysomethings who moan about perilous times. Perilous times? Hell, yes. That's what makes them so exciting. Everything is up for grabs. The Olympic and commercial gold will go to those who embrace the splendid failure, who rejoice in having pushed too far - rather than having stopped far too short.

'Behind him, tonight, are probably several mistakes, but one thing he knows about life is that you can never finally tell the difference between a mistake and success.' With those words, the physicist protagonist in the Lewis Jones novel Particles and Luck closes the chapter on a wild and woolly adventure. His point sharpens Faulkner's: to embrace failure is to embrace engagement. And from vigorous engagement comes messy, serpentine progress - if you're lucky. If one thing is clear to me it is that the unintended consequences of any act far outnumber those intended, and are often the ones that matter. Not a damn thing is predictable. Lesson: act with vigour. Serendipity just might be riding shotgun with you - but if you never take the ride . . .

'He who fears corruption fears life.' By that, Saul Alinsky, the political organiser of the 1950s and 1960s, was not championing cynicism, selfishness and contempt for one's fellows. He was urging that we push the bounds hard.

And when you enter the fray with abandon, you break the always tetchy Establishment's rules and risk its ire. (Name a real reformer without an arrest record . . . I can't).

There is no free lunch. But surely a hearty meal, even with a high risk of indigestion, beats avoiding life's dining table altogether. (Epitaph for those with a hummingbird's appetite for life: 'Whatever became of . . .?')

'Free speech . . . invites a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are or even stirs people to anger.' Justice William O Douglas made a potent case for living close to the edge, a case against tepidity.

Does your organisation encourage free speech - the zany, the obstreperous, those who find today's corporate culture offensive? The answer is far too often a resounding no.

'A leader needs to be relaxed, loose, open, stubborn, angry and unpredictable.' Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame football coach, uttered these apparently contradictory words. Translation: you must be of the fray, excited by it like a child. Passionate and determined, with a strong point of view that breaks china from time to time. And ready to go with a hunch, to reject conventional wisdom - especially your own.

'Laughter makes the world go round.' Whoever said this first deserves a medal. A Japanese competitor coming toward you at 120mph isn't funny. But if you want to win, you'll grin.

The tense and terrified are about as likely to produce a knock-your-socks-off product (canned soup or financial instrument) as they are to fly to Venus unassisted. If your workspace doesn't ring with the more than occasional peal of real laughter, I wouldn't waste a nickel on your stock.

To survive amid today's big breakers, to swallow water, sputter and half-drown but rise up to glimpse the sun again - that's the ticket. And it's the only antidote to being swamped, as most are, by the Great Blight of Dullness.

(Photograph omitted)

Copyright 1994 TPG Communications