Whoops! Huh?

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Warren Bennis and Pat Biederman wrote one of my favorite management-leadership books, Organizing Genius. Its topic-data is “great groups”—e.g., the Manhattan Project, Disney’s 1st animation lab, Xerox’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center. Warren shared with me a copy of a handwritten note he’d gotten from his great friend, Peter Drucker, when the book appeared. PD complimented Warren on the book, but challenged the choice of title. He wrote to Warren, as I recall (and I’m sure I’ve got this right), “It should have been ‘organizing idiots.'”

I thought that rather revelatory, but it slipped into the recesses of my mind until last week when I was in Adelaide. To do my “Australia prep,” I read several issues of their Management Today. There was an interview with Drucker, apparently one of the last before he died, in the magazine’s Jan-Feb 2006 issue. PD was asked about the importance of management schools, to which he had contributed so much. Here’s his take on their raison d’être: “The purpose of professional schools is to educate competent mediocrities.”

His take, my double take. Did Drucker really have such a low, even malign, view of his fellow human beings? To be sure, he had personal experience with Nazis, and had closely observed Mao and Stalin. So skepticism is warranted—I carry around a wagonload of it myself.

Still, what the hell am I doing with my life? Working to develop “competent mediocrities” (“idiots”)? While I may not believe in the likelihood of salvation to the extent that Billy Graham or Tony Robbins do, I get up in the morning—and travel to Australia for one day’s work—because I enjoy (love!) hanging out with seminar participants wrestling with their lives and the whacky professional world we all inhabit in 2006.

Do I think they are all Einsteins? Of course not—I ain’t either. Yet I do think we can aim higher, perhaps achieve some measure of Abe Maslow’s “actualization”—and occasionally create enterprises of the Starbucks or Virgin variety that do indeed offer worthy challenges to their employees and “astound” their millions of customers with something special in the way of service rendered. (NB: I laugh at Dilbert—but openly decry Scott Adams’ patent cynicism.)

There’s a question I dearly want to ask former Girl Scout head Frances Hesselbein. PD repeatedly labeled her the best CEO in America, as I recall. And she in turn is a genuine devotee of his work. So, Ms H: Did you view your Girl Scouts as “mediocrities”—who you were presumably trying to improve? Somehow I doubt it. I own no rose-colored glasses—how could you if you read the papers these days? Nonetheless I love talking to cabbies and sewer crew guys (several on my street Sunday); I learn a ton. I also love—yes, LOVE—talking to young duos who own tanning salons, and middle managers in big companies. Quite simply, though no owner of those rose-colored glasses, I “get off on” people—considering them neither “idiots” nor “mediocrities.” What about Drucker? And how did it influence his work, assuming that what’s above is in any way representative?

Tom Peters posted this on September 12, 2006, in Talent.
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