Sometimes you read a phrase or sentence in a book or magazine and it somehow captures the moment. Maybe it's the mood you're in or it parallels something that happened recently in your life. Whatever it is, the words stay with you for a while. What caught my attention was the statement: "My CEO learned to laugh at himself and the sometimes preposterous business of running a business." The word "preposterous" is what I focused on immediately. The line appeared in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal written by Ken Gurian, someone I know but haven't seen in a number of years. He's chairman of the Los Angeles-based advertising agency Baxter Gurian & Mazzei, now owned by Omnicom.
The essay was headlined "How to Succeed at Being Succeeded." In a few short, well-written paragraphs Ken talks about how he and his partner, Don Baxter, went about the task of finding and grooming a new CEO for their agency. Gurian believes a sense of humor is essential to anyone who is running a business, and he puts special emphasis on the ability to laugh at oneself in order to deal with all the craziness that managing often entails.
But the word "preposterous" has stayed with me. In the Oct. 14 issue of Fortune magazine there are a couple of articles you could likewise brand as preposterous. The first is "Confessions of an Ex-Consultant," which gives you the impression many large consulting firms aren't so much concerned with what they can do for you or your company but what they can do for themselves by extending their stay long after the original assignment is completed. You get the impression they "hustle" their clients into long-term arrangements that aren't necessarily productive. Customers are the lifeblood of any business, so any company that tries to outwit its customers by deception eventually loses credibility. It's preposterous that any major consulting company would behave in that manner.
Then there's "In Search of Suckers," by Alan Farnham. Facing the lead page is a picture of Tom Peters-author of the business classic In Search of Excellence-with his arms crossed and an interesting quote: "We're the only society that believes it can get better and better. So we keep on getting suckered in by people . . . like me." Farnham discusses all the gurus who have been loosed on American society and business. Some of them have given birth to fads such upsizing, rightsizing and downsizing that have led to layoffs in the tens of thousands and have wreaked havoc on American business. But these gurus are in great demand as speakers. Peters offers a unique perspective on the fees he and his fellow consultants command: "It's humorous, absurd. All of us sort of slide in behind whoever is the hero du jour-a Colin Powell or a Thatcher, who can get $75,000 a speech. You pray for a war, so Schwarzkopf will boost the market up 15%." Pardon me!
There's also a plethora of business books out there, some probably more preposterous than others. The Fortune article mentions a few of the new books, such as Bursting into Flame: Drive Your Company as if It Were a Dirigible, by Max Pruss and Hugo Eckener, or It Doesn't Take a Giant: Haile Selassie on Leadership, edited by James Nevelson. The latter book is the memoirs of the late Ethiopian monarch, which purports to show "how anyone of any size can hold power seemingly forever." There are many more out there for anyone who's serious-or maybe not so serious-about searching out different kinds of leadership cultures. Some of us probably wouldn't be all that shocked if we were to hear Saddam Hussein inspired a book along the lines of "Warfare in the Executive Suite: Six Easy Steps to Eradicate Your Competition." Preposterous?
I prefer to follow the advice of someone like Max DePree, author of Leadership is an Art and Leadership Jazz. He simply believes people should be treated with dignity and respect and be fully empowered in the workplace. It's a formula that has been proved time and again.
Watch out for fads,
Charles S. Lauer