The All-Nut Nine: Zany Chiefs for Zany Times

Tom Peters

When the sea was calm all ships alike
Showed mastership in floating

I was born in 1942 and reached semi-adult awareness during the Tasty Kake Eisenhower years. Young men about to enter the world were admonished to “keep your nose clean,” “don’t make waves”—and collect your gold watch after 40 years of feckless labor for reliable old XYZ Widgets.

Such advice was sound, then. “Dull times call for dull leaders and followers,” said one exec during a recent seminar.

The ’90s, however, are decidedly not dull times!

So I worry a lot about these words from Ford Chairman Red Poling: “The three most important things in business and golf are consistency, dependability, and predictability.”

Maybe he’s right about golf. But unless Mr. Poling’s ready to quit and hang out on the links, I’d suggest he think again. In fact, I believe that (1) the two most important traits in business, sports (and war—an increasingly apt analogue to business) are inconsistency and unpredictability; and (2) we desperately need more traitors inside the corporate moat.

Consider the military. In times of peace, boot-lickers slither into the top slots in the services. But war is different. Charles de Gaulle, George Patton, Winston Churchill, and Bernard Montgomery were unquestionably among World War II’s most potent leaders. Each had been sidetracked for boat-rocking and outrageous ideas in peacetime. (In prewar France, de Gaulle favored a mobile tank defense over reliance upon the static Maginot Line. Yet each man rose to the heights when the seas came to a boil.

The reason is clear: Warfare is fluid. There are no rules. While skillful logistics management is essential, guile and the ability to tack fast are paramount. Top military thinkers agree that fire in the belly and appropriate disobedience have set top commanders apart through the ages. As the supreme military strategist, Clausewitz, stated so clearly, surprise&mdashunpredictability—is everything in battle.

Back to Mr. Poling. Ford’s spectacular gains in the ’80s have worn thin. The Japanese are determined to make it a clean sweep by succeeding in the uppermost reaches of the U.S. auto market (via the likes of Acura, Infiniti, Lexus). If Red Poling is to make a mark, he has to be far less consistent and far more daring. His competitive sea is decidedly less calm than his ever so measured response to it.

Fortunately for America, the lackluster performance of a GM or Ford is far from the whole story. As we confront the future, I contend that we are in better economic shape than even our sterling competitors from Japan. Why?

Japan after World War II was blessed with a plethora of “nuts”—Akio Morita of Sony and Soichiro Honda of Honda, for example, balked at the heavy-handed ministrations of MITI (Japan’s trade ministry) and created stellar new ventures. Today, Japan waits for its next round of nuts. And waits.

The U.S. was shaped by rule-breakers—Ben Franklin, Ethan Allen, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and company. Subsequently saved by a master rule-breaker, Abe Lincoln. Vaulted to economic preeminence by rule-breakers—Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, Morgan. And we still produce an unfair share of rule-breakers.

Jack Welch, of uppity $60-billion General Electric, is neither consistent nor predictable. “Change everything, then change it again,” is his trademark. He’s hardly alone. My “All-Nut Nine” (in tribute to the baseball season just past) features Welch, Ted Turner (Turner Broadcasting), Craig McCaw (McCaw Cellular), Bill McGowan (MCI), Roger Milliken (Milliken & Co.), Bob Crandall (American Airlines), Fred Smith (FederalExpress), Les Wexner (The Limited), Mike Walsh (Union Pacific Railroad), T.J. Rodgers (Cypress Semiconductor), Sam Walton (Walmart), Vaughn Beals (Harley Davidson), Frank Lorenzo (involuntarily retired, Texas Air), Michael Milken (involuntarily retired, Drexel Burnham). Sure, it’s more than nine: But this is a treatise on unpredictability.

From trains to TV, each of these characters ignored the rules, fought City Hall, absorbed arrows in the vitals—and invented or reinvented industries in the process.

The Fortune 500 bobs along, with islands of excellence amid oceans of mediocrity. Full-fledged renewals of the GE and Union Pacific variety are rare indeed. In fact, the continuing failure to renew in the face of problems that fester for decades has led me to a desperate measure: I renounce former pleas for renegades, rogues, scoundrels and scalliwags in the corporate ranks; I demand instead traitors.

A renegade simply disturbs the peace. But a traitor finds current regime abhorrent, and is determined to do no less than topple it. I think our giants do need many more rogues and scoundrels—and more than a few traitors—in their consistently sleepy midsts. Only
wholesale corporate makeovers will do.

In short, Chairman Poling, the Eisenhower years are gone. Put your golf clubs in mothballs. Swap your golf cart for a Harley. Dull times call for dull leaders. Zany times beg for zany leaders. Ready to enlist?

(C)1990 TPG Communications.

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