In Praise of the Secular Corporation

Tom Peters

In his own fashion, time-and-motion man Frederick Taylor increased human freedom. His schemes for objectively determining “best practices” for every imaginable job helped free front-line workers from the capricious discipline of unscientific, turn-of-the-century foremen.

A half-century later, MIT’s Doug McGregor gave us Theory Y, based on the then-contrarian idea that “the capacity to exercise … imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.” About the same time, Peter Drucker marveled at the potential power of employee suggestions at GM—long before Toyota, acting on its employees’ suggestions, embarrassed GM in the marketplace.

Taylor, McGregor, Drucker, et al. have done us an enormous favor. In an age of brainwork, chaos, globalism, and shifting alliances, we must empower fast, or else. There’s no room for the oppressive managerial practices of the past.

I’m a longtime champion of employee involvement, even the frivolous parts—T-shirts, caps, buttons, badges, and “one-minute praisings.” Cynics take special glee at ripping the latter (from one-minute manager Ken Blanchard), but the world would be a better place if we thanked employees more often for jobs well done.

Still, I have a nagging concern something has gone a little haywire. Call it the advent of the spiritual leader.

Years ago, Robert Greenleaf, a retired AT&T exec, wrote Servant Leadership. Its simple premise was right as can be: The leader, from shop supervisor to Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, should serve his or her constituents.

Greenleaf’s slight but powerful treatise has a spiritual feel, as does, more openly, Herman Miller chairman Max De Pree’s 1989 Leadership Is An Art. In fact, a recent business-book publisher’s catalog seemed to feature borderline mystical books; the importance of a leader’s spirituality popped, unabashedly, from at least half the texts.

Part of me sees no problem with that. I’ve long argued that effective individual and organizational performance is largely a byproduct of ethical, committed, spirited, joyous labor. “Put love where your labor is,” the very secular Body Shop founder Anita Roddick urges in her book Body and Soul.

Yet another part of me is antsy. The late Bill McGowan, MCI’s legendary chief, thought corporate paternalism was bunk. McGowan was one of the toughest and most inspiring guys I’ve met. And I fell in love with MCI almost as much as with him: It was/is a madhouse. Action-oriented. Anti-bureaucratic (to the extent that any $10 billion-plus firm can be). Disrespectful of job boundaries.

Empowerment is MCI’s hallmark. “We don’t shoot people who make mistakes, we shoot people who don’t take risks,” Dick Liebhaber, MCI’s head of strategy and technology, says with a smile.

CNN rings the same bells. “‘Doing it’ means figuring out how to do it yourself,” said former CNN president Burt Reinhardt. “If your way works most of the time, you’ll get promoted.” I like that! CNN is action-oriented, empowered, spirited. But hardly spiritual.

Respect for the individual at MCI and CNN puts traditional corporations to shame. But both firms are performance fanatics, and they “don’t coddle” (per MCI’s Liebhaber). Truth is, if I were young and starting out, CNN and MCI would top my list of resumé recipients.

So what’s my beef? I’m not sure. It’s just that several recent business tracts seem to cross a line, to blur the borders between church and corporation.

I relish telling managers that they’re first-class jerks if they don’t listen to employees, then act on what they hear. Hey, I’ve repeatedly said we should eliminate 90 percent of our managers, because the troops don’t need them!

But when the talk turns to the spiritual side of leadership, I mostly want to run. It should be enough if I work like hell, respect my peers, customers, and suppliers, and perform with verve, imagination, efficiency, and good humor.
Please don’t ask me to join the Gregorian Chant Club, too.

GE boss Jack Welch, one tough cookie, uses the word “liberation” more often than I. And he tells his managers, in no uncertain terms, to tap the brains and zest of all employees—or catch the next train out of town.

Welch may be deeply spiritual. Or not. I don’t know. And couldn’t care less. His liberation plea, I do know, is aimed at enhanced competitiveness—which is the point, as I see it, of our secular corporations.

If Welch sneaks off to spend summers working with Mother Teresa, I’d respect him all the more, personally. But as a GE shareholder—or employee—I just don’t give a hoot.

By all means let’s empower, then empower some more. Those who fail to tap the imagination and curiosity of workers will in the viciously competitive ’90s. Good riddance. But in tapping the needed imagination and curiosity, let’s leave the Bible, the Koran, and facile talk of spiritual leaders at home.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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