Skip to main content

Born-again salesman

Management consultant Tom Peters has lots to say about dynamic school leadership.

Patrick Scott assesses its relevance

Tom Peters is the management consultant who built his pitch on a survey of America's leading companies and call-ed it In Search of Excellence. He prides himself on being ahead of the game. You think you know all about being competitive at the end of the 20th century? Take a look at Thriving on Chaos. It's going to get a whole lot tougher.

This is the guy out in front, who knows what it is like to be at the leading edge of capitalism. The rest of us have just woken up to the fact that there's nobody at the controls, Tom Peters knew it all along. Right? Wrong. (Reading Tom Peters really is a bit like this).

Partly wrong, anyway. Yes, his message is all about how to gain a competitive edge in a world that is moving so fast that nothing will be the same tomorrow as it is today, but there is also something curiously old-fashioned about him. Reading Tom Peters, it is hard not to be reminded of Arthur Miller's requiem on Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: "He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."

Underneath all that smart talk about restructuring your company or investing in human capital is the voice of the salesman through the ages. Innovate, listen to your customers, and give them what you have persuaded them they want. Not much new about that.

So why, apart from the fact that he sells more books than anybody else in a section of the market that is increasingly fashionable, is he being featured in a series which is as much about education as it is about management?

The culture he comes from could hardly be more distant from that of public sector management in Britain. But, like any good salesman, he knows how to get his foot in the door and he has the capacity to challenge your assumptions without trampling too far over your principles.

In A Passion for Excellence, published in 1986, four years after In Search of Excellence, he concentrated on trying to identify what was distinctive about good management. Many successful companies, he argued, just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Only a small number actually succeed in markets that are already well supplied by giant corporations with apparently limitless resources. It is much more difficult to account for their success. Why do they make it even thought the odds are stacked against them?

The answer, he claims, is leadership. "The concept of leadership is crucial to the revolution now under way - so crucial that we believe the words 'managing' and 'management' should be discarded. 'Management', with its attendant images - cop, referee, devil's advocate, dispassionate analyst, naysayer, pronouncer - connotes controlling and arranging and demeaning and reducing. 'Leadership' connotes unleashing energy, building, freeing and growing."

The last quarter of the book attempts to define good leadership in more detail and the penultimate chapter, unexpectedly, is about excellence in school leadership.

The first shock to the system is his belief that what makes the difference is individual men and women. Most of us accept without question that nobody is indispensable, that what matters is the organisation, in both senses of the word.

Tom Peters, by contrast, celebrates the achievements of individuals who are personally responsible for the success of their companies. His books are full of "heroes" about whom he can tell tales of extraordinary achievement. And not just legendary bosses with uncanny powers of perception, but clerks and telephonists and machine-operators whose tireless efforts have salvaged flagging fortunes and kept their companies afloat.

There's another echo there of Arthur Miller. "In those days," laments Willy Loman, remembering his heyday as a salesman "there was personality in it. Today it's all cut and dried."

Given this, it should come as no surprise that the chapter on education focuses entirely on the work of three school principals, identified by name and talked about like old friends. It is quite unlike anything else on educational management.

There is nothing about curriculum, not a word about structures, no mention of finance and resources. Instead there are stories about the varied and eccentric ways in which these three principals came to embody their schools and dominate the lives of everybody they encountered.

What they have in common is "a crystal-clear and simple vision, the headmaster as chief salesman inside and out, and the constant, blatant, consistent, obsessive use of symbols. It is the foundation on which all else rests. "

Put like that, he sounds a bit nutty. But if you are prepared to give him a chance, it's worth the effort. What, on first reading, makes you want to turn to Reader's Digest for a bit of intellectual rigour eventually forces you to think again about what leadership actually means.

Nonetheless, it still comes as a jolt to turn the page and discover that "Ronald Reagan has done an astonishing job" in "preaching the vision". Two pages on, you forgive him when you learn that "good schoolteachers know the value of passivity, that teaching involves far more waiting than lecturing". That's what it means to be operating outside the normal rules of discourse about teaching and learning.

His argument for replacing management with leadership is central and helps to explain his interest in the school system. In essence, Tom Peters' leader is a teacher. "There is no magic", he writes at the beginning of a chapter called, significantly Coaching, "only people who find and nurture champions, dramatise company goals and direction, build skills and teams, spread irresistible enthusiasm. They are cheerleaders, coaches, storytellers and wanderers. They encourage, excite, teach, listen, facilitate." What interests him is how people learn to become productive and purposeful members of an organisation, whether it be an airline, a big retailer, an airforce base or a school. Try to imagine what it is like to believe that there is very little difference between a salesman and a teacher, and you should get some feeling for the way he thinks that is most effectively achieved.

Nobody learns, he contends, without glimpsing some goal that they can strive for. It is the job of the leader to "set the picture and ... to paint it for others".

This process he refers to as "dramatising the vision". The most effective leaders focus on this vision with an obsessive intensity that is, by any normal standards, quite unreasonable.

In one memorable chapter, he refers to it as "love". But it doesn't stop there. The vision has to be communicated, and what Peters understands is that very few people are moved by the conventional paraphernalia of corporate life - reports, memos, minutes and the rest. On the contrary, "all business is show business".

What leaders have to do is to be memorable, to behave in a way that sends out unmistakable messages which will be talked about long after all the memos have been shredded. That is what he means by "symbols". The principal who sets up his desk in full view in the main entrance because he wants to be at the centre of his school, and drives around the campus in a golf cart picking up litter knows how to make an impression and how to establish clearly what his values are - "vision made visible".

All of Tom Peters' books exemplify this belief. Anecdotes abound. For every point he wants to make, there are a dozen stories, and they are all told with an instinctive narrative flair. You quickly get to know that everything you read will be amazing.

It is this sense that he knows about how people learn that is really refreshing about his work. At a time when the national curriculum is becoming less and less sophisticated, it is good to read a management consultant who quotes Carl Rogers with approval: "It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another has little or no significant influence on behaviour...self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another."

In his chapter on "coaching", which is all about how managers might "elicit creative contributions from all hands to the organisation's over-arching purpose", he provides a model of learning that would leave many educational institutions standing.

Five roles for the successful coach, to "educate, sponsor, coach, counsel and confront", are each analysed under four headings - "timing", "tone","consequences" and "key skills" - designed to help provide a feeling for how they work best in practice. This is a world away from the naive belief that people learn what they are told. "One learns", in Tom Peters' view, "only if one is allowed to muddle... and muddle and muddle."

What is even more remarkable is that he doesn't make a distinction between the way adults and children learn. All very well, you might have been thinking as you read that passage from Carl Rogers, but that's not what it's like in school. On the contrary, what Peters would argue is that too many businesses treat their adults like children and that schools ought to treat their children like adults. "Treat your people as adults and they will respond as adults, conscientiously and creatively."

It is an optimistic message, and Tom Peters only sustains it convincingly by refusing to peer into some of the murkier aspects of how business works in a free market. He is a passionate believer in the benefits of exploiting human potential. He only rarely acknowledges that exploitation has its darker side.

* Patrick Scott, Cleveland seniorad-viser for school development,writes here in a personal capacity.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you