Depends on What the Meaning of "Is" Is:

Or, Why I Don’t Watch the Evening News. Or, the Speech Is the Thing.

Katie Couric is quoted as follows in BusinessWeek‘s “What Makes a Winner: The Competition Issue” (08.21-28.06): “Television is one of the most competitive arenas anywhere. I think the only way to thrive and survive in that atmosphere is to have the love of competition in your blood.”

(For the record: As an avowed, vociferous champion of women in leadership roles, I’m delighted that Ms Couric has become the first solo woman anchor on network evening news.)

That quote helps me realize why I don’t watch evening news. If your ultimate goal is to “compete,” presumably for ratings supremacy, in my opinion you are/one is doomed to mediocrity.

Start here: I am an obnoxiously intense competitor, and have been for a half century, with no let up in sight. Among other things, today I regularly Google myself against the “competition” in “speaking world”—weekly vs Jack Welch and Rudy Giuliani. (Mostly keepin’ the lead, though RG will nail me as the presidential election campaign approaches—but then he won’t be on the circuit.) I want badly to “win” in comparative speakers’ ratings at big conferences—and I’m in despair for days when that doesn’t happen. I track book sales; etc; etc.

But …

But the fact of the matter is that the only person I truly compete against is myself. Is it the best damned speech I could give? Did I push “them” hard enough, too hard? Did I connect in a way that makes a difference in a few attendees’ lives? Is there enough genuinely new material in the speech? Did I take risks with new-provocative material? (Risks that might clobber those evaluations after the fact. OH LORD, I SHUDDER AS I RECALL TWO RECENT EXAMPLES—I survived ’em both, and one led directly to a Big corporate change.) Was the entire two hours or whatever spent, without a second’s letup, living on or near or past the edge? Were they scared-aroused? Was I scared? Was I literally sick with mental & physical exhaustion when I staggered off the stage? Can I sincerely continue to claim, even if only to myself, that I am perpetually re-imaging the entire world of management thinking & business practice (yikes)? Etc.

When Rather “competed” against Brokaw and Jennings for ratings, the competition per se was the thing—and the product for all three, while competent, was and long has been same-same. Take a true risk, and perhaps watch ratings wobble for 6 months? What a joke!

In late 2003, Dorling Kindersley and I published Re-imagine! Did I want good sales? Damn right! But if “good sales” had been the principal goal I would have penned the “big book” that other publishers wanted. I went to DK because of one and only one thing (surely not the advance!): I wanted to re-imagine the business book! (And they were game.) Did I track sales? Of course. (We—publisher and I—were moderately happy.) But I mostly loved the Amazon reviews: Nothing in the middle! People loved the book, and indeed its attempt to change the genre. Or hated it. (NB: As a speaker, I far prefer 1s or 10s in my evaluations to a bucket of 7s.)

Renée Mauborgne and Chan Kim, authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, tell us: “To grow, companies need to break out of a vicious cycle of competitive benchmarking and imitation.” “Value innovation is about making the competition irrelevant by creating uncontested market space. We argue that beating the competition within the confines of the existing industry is not the way to create profitable growth.” (As usual, Churchill more or less got there first: “The short road to ruin is to emulate the methods of your adversary.”)

Here’s the sort of thing I dearly wish Ms Couric had said: “Ratings are the least of it. Evening TV news is stale, in the tank, even laughable. It doesn’t need a ‘cool’ or ‘refreshing’ ‘female’ anchor. It needs to be blown up and re-thought from the ground up. If the program I anchor looks or smells or feels anything at all like evening news of the Cronkite-Rather era I will have failed miserably and horribly abused a golden opportunity, even if I do edge out the guys at the other networks.”

Kim and Mauborgne dote on Cirque du Soleil. (Me too.) Our Montreal pals re-imagined the whole idea of “circus”—and took an insane risk in the process. And they indeed turned their and our world upside down—in fact they unequivocally invented a new planet within the larger solar system of entertainment. That’s the idea!

In On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis makes this intriguing claim, based on his muscular research: “No leader sets out to be a leader per se, but rather to express him- or herself freely and fully. That is leaders have no interest in proving themselves, but an abiding interest in expressing themselves.”

I burst at the seams, at 63.8, as I anticipate the opening of the 2006 “fall season” in Adelaide 10 days from now. I want to “express myself”—to bore in deeper to the souls & hearts & minds of my participants, to make my renovated message of Excellence resonate and act as a clarion call to “risky” action in halls and boardrooms across the/all lands.

Will I read the evaluations from Adelaide? Of course! Will I still Google Welch & Rudy & me? Of course! But the-speech-is-the-thing! My “competition,” my hypercompetitive-need: Will it have been the best & most provocative & original & troubling & exciting speech I have ever even attempted to give? If not, as ’tis said, it will be a long plane trip back from Australia!

Please, please Ms Couric—don’t “compete” with those other predictable saps. Stun us with the audacity of your effort to help us understand anew and cope with the bizarre world in which we are trying to somehow make our way.

Tom Peters posted this on August 28, 2006, in Brand You.
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