Tom Peters dots his articles with exclamation points, ellipses, and WORDS IN ALL CAPS. He tends toward sweeping, barely supported statements ("Women are smarter than men," he generalized in Forbes ASAP) and uses the word revolution a lot. His official bio describes him as a "gadfly, curmudgeon, champion of bold failures, prince of disorder, maestro of zest, professional loudmouth (as a speaker he's `a spitter,' according to the cartoon strip Dilbert), corporate cheerleader, lover of markets, capitalist pig...and card-carrying member of the ACLU."
It's all designed to get attention--for Peters and for his ideas--and it works. He is the best-selling business author in history and travels the world giving extremely lucrative seminars to corporate executives eager to be provoked and inspired. His 1982 mega-bestseller, In Search of Excellence, co-authored with Robert Waterman, launched a whole new genre of business books and created the modern business guru.
But there is more to Peters than the hype-meister and "spitter." In person, he qualifies his generalizations with "to be sure" background, and his books are grounded in a solid knowledge of business practice and theory. He sprinkles philosophical phrases (Karl Popper's "conjectures and refutations" is a favorite) and the ideas behind them in with the anecdotes, salesmanship, and (you've been warned--do not send us letters to the editor complaining about this) profanity. As befits a Stanford Ph.D. (in decision science and organizational behavior), he is well read in the scholarly literature, as comfortable citing UCLA strategy professor Richard Rumelt's seminal-but-esoteric work on diversification or F.A. Hayek's idea of the extended order as he is touting the latest pop business book.
As his bio suggests, Peters is also politically confusing--at least to those used to traditional left-right distinctions. An article last fall in Lingua Franca, a magazine aimed at professors, reported U.C.-Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield's proposal "to instigate social change with an unlikely coalition: the middle managers who read Tom Peters, together with postmodern English professors, fighting side by side to make the world safe for radical democracy." The coalition might work, but not in the leftist way Newfield imagines. (Newfield admits some worries about Peters's devotion to Hayek's The Fatal Conceit.) The literary theorists would have to learn to love the market. True, Peters's work overturns Organization Man assumptions and emphasizes flexibility, flux, and diversity. But free markets are part of the same dynamic picture. Those postmodern virtues are, it turns out, pretty much what the Hayekian market looks like: "The corporation...as we knew/know it...is dead!" writes Peters in characteristic style. "The market as Hayek knew it and loved it is alive, well, getting better and hopelessly inexplicable! Long live...God knows what! Playground directors united! Ready. Fire. Aim."
REASON Editor Virginia Postrel interviewed Peters at his Palo Alto office in May and in a follow-up phone conversation from his Vermont farm in July.
Reason: You have a tendency in your public life to state things very sweepingly, so you are criticized for hype and a whiff of charlatanism.
Tom Peters: Absolutely. It's called sales. I have a great deal of difficulty, though I'm well trained academically, not being passionate about things. My problem is not that I see all 17 sides of any issue, but I'm equally passionate about all 17 sides simultaneously.
I think economics is about passion. Economic progress, whether it is a two-person coffee shop or whether it is Netscape, is about people with brave ideas. Because it is brave to mortgage the house when you've got two kids to start a coffee shop.
And business is about people. It's about passion. It's about bold ideas, bold small ideas or bold large ideas.
My entire adult professional life is one big effort to exorcise the demon of Robert McNamara. You know, I went to Vietnam. I was not a war protester. I went to Vietnam twice, not once. But McNamara was the closest we've had to a serious, statist planner in this country. And he got away with it three times--once at Ford, once at the Department of Defense, and once with the World Bank. And my passion is the destruction of everything that McNamara stood for. My life is a passionate statement against statism--statism in the corporation, as opposed to in the nation, if you will. So that's a piece of it.
Another piece of it is that, in a world that is overloaded with
information, I attempt to provoke. A classic example of that: Two
days ago I was in Orlando speaking to the annual convention of the
International Mass Retailers Association. The chief
operating officer of Wal-Mart was there, and the Circuit City people, and so on. I said, "In the last 25 years you in this room have created a genuine revolution: the Staples revolution, the Blockbuster revolution, the Home Depot revolution, the Wal-Mart revolution. I presume you are reasonably intelligent. Why are you sitting here complacently, not realizing that, though none of us realizes what it's going to be, there will be another revolution? Do you think the next 25 years are going to be more mellow than the last 25 years?" I said: "There's not a soul in this room who is behaving in a revolutionary fashion. You're all history."
And Don Soderquist, who is the COO at Wal-Mart, came up to me afterwards. He said, "That was great. You really pissed me off." And I said, "Right, it was worth the trip to Orlando."
Reason: What about younger, cynical people who say, "This is just a bunch of bull"? Not just you, but what you've started. That's why Dilbert is huge.
Peters: Absolutely. The classic backlash. We of In Search of Excellence were the backlash to the MBA dogma of the 1960s and '70s. Dilbert is the backlash to the management gurus of the last 15 years, starting with In Search of Excellence.
That's life. It's called conjectures and refutations. It's very Popperian. Any time anything takes root, it leads to wretched excess. Fine.