Powerlessness is a State of Mind

Tom Peters

I am fed up with “powerless” middle managers. They spend most of their time moping about the fact that their top managements discourage risk-taking and innovation.

I agree with their implicit premise: top managers who dis-empower people are fools. On the other hand, I believe that middle managers who allow top managers to get away with dis-empowerment are greater fools.

I never went to Werner Erhard’s est training; I’m no fan of his. Yet his guiding assertion is faultless, at least outside of the ghetto: if you don’t take charge of your destiny, it’s your own fault. No one else’s.

While I was in the Navy in the ’60s, I had the pleasure of working with Lieutenant Commander Joe Key. Lieutenant commanders in the Pentagon, where we were, come cheaper than a dime a dozen. To say they were mere ciphers in a 25,000-person building is an understatement. Yet Joe Key got things done. He got the budgets he wanted approved, when people twice his rank couldn’t. He launched program after program in short order—as if he were still in the field and not a minion in the world’s largest bureaucracy (outside of the Soviet Union).

I learned a lot from Joe. For starters, he had an unimaginably fat and fast-growing Rolodex. His “network” of personal contacts spanned the globe. Moreover, that Rolodex didn’t respect rank. He knew a ton of low-level bureaucrats who gave him instant access to data that no one else could dig out of the system. He knew every two-, three-, and four-star admiral’s executive assistant. And countless very senior officers returned his calls with alacrity.

In a lot of ways, Joe was his Rolodex. He could “staff” (Navy for answer) in an hour a question that would take much more senior officers months to work out. Moreover, when he had an answer, no matter how outlandish, it was incontrovertible; after all, he had worked intimately with the ultimate sources of knowledge.

And Joe had always “been there” (to the field, where the customers lived) more recently than any of his Pentagon peers or superiors. Of course, he hadn’t physically been anywhere beyond his desk; a rather broad duff testified to that. But he was always busily helping unit commanders: cutting red tape for them, getting them this or that small thing in two weeks instead of the “system’s” normal six months. They in turn supplied him the “straight skinny” (Navy for truth) from the front lines—bushels of timely information to use and trade with others in the defense management labyrinth.

Lieutenant Commander Joe Key, in short, was a very powerful fellow. It was really quite lovely to watch him work: it would never have occurred to Joe for a moment that lieutenant commanders were powerless, or that he should see himself that way. He just went about his job, weaving a more intricate web, capturing innumerable bits of information and new relationships within that web with each passing day. I still don’t understand more than 10 percent of what he was up to; but as you can see from this encomium, I remain mightily impressed nearly 25 years later.

The point is: Joe Key is hardly alone, though I’d be the first to admit that he’s an anomaly. I’ve met hundreds if thousands of Joe Keys in the last quarter of a century, “stuck” (or so it would appear to others) in the middle reaches of a DuPont, AT&T, IBM, EPA. Yet they are grand masters at “playing the system” and getting things done. They have no time for an academic discussion of “middle-management powerlessness”; like Joe Key, they simply would not understand.

These system maestros have by and large survived the middle-management bloodbath of the ’80s. But some have been on the cut lists, since cut lists have a habit of being political and the skill of these clever operatives often attracts untoward attention from their “powerless” peers and even bosses. Those who have bitten the dust, however, have invariably landed on both feet—and quickly begun to weave their webs and rebuild their Rolodexes in another setting.

Harvey Mackay, author of two best sellers (most recently Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt), would doubtless smile at my story about Joe Key, for he’s a Joe Key who happens to own the company. His books are roundly criticized as “nothing new.” I heartily disagree. If they aren’t new in concept, their advice surely isn’t practiced very often. Mackay’s secret is knowing more than anybody else: knowing more about his customers, knowing more about potential employees—and, yes, overseeing a world-class Rolodex.

Middle management in the ’90s is a survivable profession. But only for those who take the initiative, who “add value constantly,” as Harvard Professor Rosabeth Kanter puts it. Adding value comes from learning more, working directly with kindred spirits in the boondocks to regularly create improvement projects, and ceaselessly adding to the Rolodex/network. Those who “keep their noses clean,” “don’t make waves” and “keep their heads down” are indeed doomed. They are the endangered middle managers who have succumbed to the myth of powerlessness imposed by hapless top managements.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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