You Must Care

Tom Peters

[***(Editor's Note: Profane language appears in some material quoted in this column.)***]

A recent feature in the New York Times, titled "Remaking the American C.E.O.," quoted Gulf+Western chief Martin Davis on dealing with today's uncertainties, "You can't be emotionally bound to any particular asset."

Although I acknowledge the need for consolidation and rationalization of our physical assets, in many old industries in particular, I find Davis's remark repugnant.

Compare Davis' attitude with that of Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer. A few weeks ago I attended an official toast to the Governor, honoring his 15 years as mayor of Baltimore, during which the city's neighborhoods and business environment were improved dramatically. Schaefer's remarks that evening were punctuated by years as he homed in on his two favorite words, "people" and "care."

Former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden is not afraid of emotion. Madden, who won 100 games sooner than any other National Football League coach, began his book One Knee Equals Two Feet, "If you get the impression that I love football, you're right."

Gary Taubes' well-received book Nobel Dreams chronicles how European high energy physicist Carlo Rubbia won the Nobel Prize. Taubes observes, "Rubbia had an incurable passion for physics." The laureate was brutally tough, a politician with few peers; yet colleague after colleague speaks of his wholesale emotional involvement in his work—the word love is used frequently, even by Rubbia's most severe critics.

From my experience, great companies, great cities, great football teams and Nobel-winning efforts are unfailingly led by people with a consuming passion for their discipline or product. Indeed, America's frightening economic problems, as well as the moral ones surfaced by the widening insider trading scandal, are by-products of the detachment about which Davis brags.

In The Big Time, author Laurence Shames portrays the astoundingly successful Harvard Business School class of 1949. One graduate, Conrad Jones, a former senior vice president at the consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton, vividly illustrates the difference between detachment and involvement: "Let me tell you about two meetings I sat in on. Both were with companies that were having some problems with quality control. One company was professionally managed. Their approach to the problem was to analyze everything. How many doors, say, were falling off? What percentage of doors were falling off? How much would it cost to stick 'em back on? What were the chances of getting sued? How much advertising would it take to counteract the bad publicity? Not once did they actually talk about the doors, the hinges, or why the hell they were falling off. They weren't interested in solving the problem, they just wanted to manage the mess."

"The other meeting was at Coleman Stove. ... They were having a problem with some boilers ... the service department comes in with the reports, the clipboards, the yellow pencils, and everybody hunkers down for a serious discussion. Well, you know how long that meeting lasted? About thirty seconds. Old Man Coleman sits bolt upright in his chair and bellows out, 'You mean we got goods out there that aren't working? Get 'em back, replace 'em, and find out why, goddammit.' And that was the end of the meeting. There was no financial analysis. There was no legal analysis. There was no customer-relations analysis. There was no goddam analysis. The issue was integrity of the product—which meant there was no issue at all. You stand by it, and that's that."

When I picture Roger Milliken of textile maker Milliken & Company, or John McConnell, founder of steelmaker Worthington Industries, or stalwart grocer Stew Leonard, I see first and foremost people like Governor Schaefer and Sheldon Coleman who are emotionally hooked on what they do.

Competitive success means providing better quality and better service. Our most successful business leaders transfer their emotional commitment to their workers, who also must be hooked on rather than turned off by what they are doing if we are to succeed.

These workers are not just disposable "assets." A finely crafted car or personal computer, an elegantly designed piece of software, and a beautifully presented restaurant meal are not mere "assets" either.

The late U.S. Army Lieutenant General Melvin Zais once commanded the blood-and-guts 101st Airborne. He held strong views about leadership. Years back, I came across a scratchy audiotape of a speech he gave to the Armed Forces Staff College. Zais concluded, "I will ... provide you with ... the one piece of advice which I believe will contribute more to making you a better leader and commander, will provide you with greater happiness and self-esteem and at the same time advance your career more than any other advice which I can provide to you. And it doesn't call for a special personality, and it doesn't call for any certain chemistry. Any one of you can do it. And that advice is that you must care."

From the battlefield to the playing field to the physics lab to the factory, I'll bet my money on the late general's advice.

(c)1987 TPG Communications

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