Prophets of Mammon
I wrote this piece in the early nineties. The central event took place in the late eighties. When I came to revise it and bring it up to date for the website, I found it needed few changes. This is worrying.
The first moment I saw Tom Peters bounding on to the stage, I realised that here was
someone who had more in common with Billy Graham the evangelist than he did any economist or industrialist.
We, a party of twenty or so, had been despatched on a day’s outing to Bournemouth, ostensibly to learn something about management from the great man, although probably in truth because someone had hoped a little of his magic would rub off on us. Magic is not too strong a word for what I’m talking about. I at least had been sceptical about the benefits of this outing but before long I was under his spell, exactly like the rest of the group, or indeed like most of the several hundred people who were packed into the hall.
Already after the passage of a few decades it is easy to forget how powerful an influence this man and the lesser lights who followed in his wake exerted over business thinking. They still do to some extent. In the case of Tom Peters, this influence owed as much to his personal appearances as to his writings. On that day spring day in Bournemouth, I was to find out why.
His stage presence was quite extraordinary. He seemed possessed of a dynamism and energy that he projected to the audience. It was hard not to believe that the man truly had divine inspiration. It was if there was an electric charge in his every word, his every mannerism. Here, we decided, as had so many others before us, was the man with all the answers we needed. No wonder we believed every word, accepted every idea as if it were a commandment.
The performance was truly magnificent but there was one moment when the mask slipped. I like to think, because Peters seemed to be a decent man at the personal level, it was deliberately let slip. I remember the moment very well. Peters had been talking about ‘empowerment’, one of the mantras of the business world in the nineteen-nineties.
In essence, this means allowing employees more of a say in the way things are done in the workplace. The theory goes this will make them take more responsibility for their actions. A good philosophy, sound common sense even, you might say. And so it is, unless it becomes no more than another way of getting more work done at lesser cost, because a smaller number of people are working so much harder.
Then, after this passage of his speech, before the Peters machine became fully charged again for the next part of the sermon, he dropped his voice a little. For a moment he became the neighbour chatting over the fence rather than the supercharged management guru we had witnessed only seconds ago.
Paraphrasing, he said ‘Of course they (the employees from whom Peters had before been advising us how to get more work) might go home a little more tired. They probably wouldn’t have as much time for the PTA or the local society. They might have to put the model-making and gardening to one side’.
In short, he was lifting his eyes from the company balance sheet for a moment.
Then he was off again on his white charger of change and excellence in the workplace. I enjoyed the rest of the performance, as did my colleagues, but now I saw it in a subtly different light. It is this small human aside that stayed with me rather than what I had been sent down to Bournemouth to hear. I remain grateful for it after all these years, whether it was fully intentional or not.
As we all now know, other management gurus, many with far sterner messages, have since had their impact on the business world. In turn this has done much to shape present-day society, often in a malign way. Downsizing, efficiency-savings, outsourcing, share buyback, competing in the world marketplace and similar euphemisms for maintaining or increasing profit margins regardless of the wider consequences have damaged and are still damaging the fabric of society.
There are signs of a slight reversal to some of the more damaging trends, a realisation that one company’s cost-cutting exercise for short-term benefit can also be an erosion of the wider economic base. But then, in ten years, or twenty, or thirty, some super-guru, some new shining prophet of Mammon will probably arise in a world eager for quick and easy answers.
Will we be ready to hear once again? Please let us listen very carefully.