New Vision or Simple Market Necessity

Tom Peters

I recently shared a marvelous evening in Paris with three “new age” management gurus: John Naisbitt, whose latest book, written with wife Patricia Auberdine, is Reinventing the Corporation; Warren Bennis, co-author of Leaders and John Katzenbach, a senior director at McKinsey, who works closely with the authors of The Winning Performance. We appeared before an audience and numerous television cameras to discuss America’s emerging new management paradigm.

Bennis talked almost poetically of love, empowerment, and leaders who create meaning and high levels of energy within their enterprises. His subjects included athletic coaches, symphony conductors, movie directors, and top executives in multi-billion-dollar corporations.

Katzenbach talked of our more entrepreneurial mid-sized companies that are providing a much-needed spark to the American economy. Their leaders are quality oriented, not quantity oriented. They are concerned about developing visions and creating institutions, as opposed to simply “increasing shareholder wealth.” These leaders tend to be emotional and inspiring, not cool, professional, and calculating.

Naisbitt spoke disparagingly of the Fortune 500 companies, describing them as a collection of dinosaurs. He considers People Express and W. L. Gore (the Gore-tex makers) the exemplars. These entrepreneurs are creating a much more humanistic environment, Naisbitt avers.

Later, a confused string of European reporters bombarded me with a battery of questions: “What is going on? What is all this about love, emotion, leadership, empowerment, and humanism in the workplace?”

I quickly threw a bucket of water on the rhetoric of the evening’s event, when one of the reporters asked the frequent question, “Is the success of In Search of Excellence inspiring a management revolution in the U.S.?”

“No! No!” I asserted. This constitutes no false humility on my part. I’ve often said that had In Search of Excellence with not a semicolon changed, been written five years before it was published, it barely would have gotten beyond the second-cousin market. Its first printing of 10,000 copies would have been optimistic.

In Search of Excellence hit the marketplace in October, 1982, the same month that then-Secretary of the Treasury Don Regan announced an unemployment rate of 10 percent, signaling the nadir of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. That dose of reality spurred the success of In Search of Excellence.

If, indeed, there is a new age upon us, it is not a product of some form of altruistic corporate enlightenment. It is, instead, a last-ditch—and belated—response to the desperate straits in which more than 70 percent of America’s newly-challenged industrial companies find themselves. If humanism has hit the front pages, it is because America is being clobbered in market after market, from merchant-semiconductor chips to earthmoving machines to automobiles.

If American industry is to survive a thoroughly revised way of doing business is required. The mass-production scale economies are no longer predominant determinants of success. Basic commodity products—steel, chemicals and textiles—are probably gone from our shores for good.

A sustainable American competitive edge will be in specialty, higher value-added products. In fact, specialists are the only firms that are winning in these otherwise beleaguered industries. Other crucial strategies for success include shorter product development cycles, which suggest the need for many more entrepreneurs, both inside and outside the large corporation; more flexible manufacturing; a greater quality orientation; and more service responsiveness.

These essential competitive survival factors require organizations to focus on people on the production line and in the field-service force. Any people-centered organization is more humanistic, by definition. That is, if you want a top-quality product, you must listen to your people who are closest to it and work to create an environment in which they will feel committed enough to contribute their hearts, minds and muscle power to making that top-quality product.

Inspiring your people requires a new form of leadership—leadership that permits and encourages emotion, impassioned champions, empowerment on the line, enthusiasm, zest, pride, and vigor. All these attitudes had been subjugated in the mass economy, since the time when Frederick Taylor introduced the stopwatch to industry, and when emotionless and perfectly began conducting dry and sterile analyses.

Today, a different sort of organization is required—not for reasons of love, but for reasons of survival. The newly oriented organization, with its new set of people-driven strategic edges, is not an option. It’s the only survival course available.


All rights reserved