Without ruffled feathers, success won't take flight

ON EXCELLENCE

March 21, 1994|By TOM PETERS

"There's no sense in saying something unless you tee somebody off," a male exec told me. Just another case of testosterone speaking?

Perhaps, but I think not. My objective in general, and in this column in particular, is to irritate. The times are far from bland, but you can't say that about most managers and their organizations. Consider, then, these fighting words:

* "Accept anything but a tepid response." That was among the commandments laid down for budding teachers by the late, venerated Notre Dame English professor Frank O'Malley. Unfortunately, too many of us tolerate tepid.

Most meetings are tepid.

Most corporate offices are tepid.

And, not surprisingly, most strategies and products and services turn out tepid.

I don't mean to champion verbal abuse. I do mean to stamp out what urban planner-philosopher Jane Jacobs calls "the Great Blight of Dullness."

How about taking a pledge? Starting right now, your questions ** won't be tepid. And you won't accept tepid replies. If the day passes without a startling idea crossing your path, (1) worry, a lot and (2) consider yourself a second-rate manager for having induced stupefaction among the ranks.

* "[To] try something you can't do, to try and fail, then try it again. That to me is success. My generation will be judged by the splendor of our failures." So said William Faulkner. All progress stems from failure. Economic. Personal. Artistic. Scientific. You'd need a very tepid IQ not to understand that.

Yet how many of us are failure seekers? Or, more important, seekers of splendid failures?

I'm sick and tired of twentysomethings who moan about perilous times. Perilous times? Hell, yes. That's what makes them so exciting. Everything is up for grabs. And one thing is clear: The Olympic and commercial gold will go to those who embrace the splendid failure, who rejoice in having pushed too far rather than having stopped far too short.

* "Behind him, tonight, are probably several mistakes, but one thing he knows about life is that you can never finally tell the difference between a mistake and success." With those words, the particle-physicist protagonist in Lewis Jones' novel "Particles and Luck" closes the chapter on a wild and woolly adventure.

His point sharpens Faulkner's: To embrace failure is to embrace engagement; and from vigorous engagement comes messy, serpentine progress -- if you're lucky.

If one thing is clear to me after 51 years, it's that unintended consequences of any act far outnumber the intended and are the ones that matter.

* "He who fears corruption fears life." By that, '50s and '60s political organizer Saul Alinsky wasn't championing cynicism, selfishness and contempt for one's fellows. He was urging that we push the bounds hard. And when you enter the fray with abandon, you break the always tetchy establishment's rules and risk its ire. (Name a real reformer without an arrest record. I can't.)

* "Free speech under our system of government . . . invites a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." Justice William O. Douglas makes a potent case for living close to the edge, a case against tepidity.

Does your organization encourage free speech -- the zany, the obstreperous, those who find today's (still successful) corporate culture offensive?

The answer to those questions is far too often a resounding no.

* "A leader needs to be relaxed, loose, open, stubborn, angry and unpredictable." Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh uttered these apparently contradictory words.

Translation: You must be of the fray, excited by it like a child, passionate and determined, with a strong point of view that breaks china from time to time, and ready to go with a hunch, to reject conventional wisdom, especially your own.

* "Laughter makes the world go 'round." Whoever said this first deserves a medal. A Japanese competitor coming toward you at 120 miles an hour isn't funny. But if you want to win, you'll grin. The tense and terrified, the stiff and the stony-faced, are about as likely to produce a knock-your-socks-off product (canned soup or financial instrument) as they are to fly to Venus unassisted.

If your work space doesn't ring with more than the occasional peal of bona fide belly laughter, I wouldn't waste a plugged nickel on your stock.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-6200.

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