Tom Peters and the Revolution of Leadership

In honor of the Jack Covert Award being given to Tom Peters, I thought I would share some of Tom’s quotes.

Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.

Celebrate what you want to see more of.

Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only in constant improvement and constant change.

If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.

The simple act of paying positive attention to people has a great deal to do with productivity.

The magic formula that successful businesses have discovered is to treat customers like guests and employees like people.

Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.

And here are a couple of Tom’s big ideas that have had a huge impact on me.

1. MBWA: Managing By Walking Around

We met the president, a guy by the name of John Young, and as John told us these fascinating stories he also revealed one of the “Hewlett-Packard secrets,” which was something that he called, they called, MBWA, or Managing By Wandering Around.

And Bob and I had spent our professional careers with CEOs who sat behind layer after layer of secretaries and people, and didn’t get out of their office from one week to the next. And we were just enchanted by it.

And what is it, ’77 to now, it’s over 30 years later (now 40 years) and I’m even more in love with the term. And in love with the term, it’s the term, MBWA, Managing By Wandering Around. But what I really am in love with it as is more or less a metaphor, a metaphor for being in touch, a metaphor for not losing touch with your employees, your vendors, your customers or what have you.
– Tom Peters, Excellence: MBWA

2. Tom’s Definition of Leadership

Robert Altman won the lifetime achievement Oscar about three or four years ago, and died immediately thereafter, alas. But Mr. Altman said—and I actually wrote this down in pencil while he was doing his acceptance speech—he said, “The role of the director is to provide a space where people can become—where actors and actresses can become— more than they ever dreamed of being.” Now, you say “Hollywood,” I say “Everybody.” The same thing exactly is true with a housekeeper in a hotel, with a junior accountant in the finance department. And so, I once said that leadership is about painting portraits of excellence. Napoleon said it better than me, no surprise. He said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

I wrote previously how Tom inspired my belief that true leaders help their people discover who they really are. He included my thoughts in his presentation entitled, “The Nub of Leadership.” The term “nub” is used to describe the core, or essence, of something. It’s root word is the same as knob, which we use most commonly as “door knob.” I think that’s a great way to view Tom. He sees the nub of leadership. He sees the knob that we simply turn and pull in order to open ourselves to new opportunities.

This brings to mind an old Far Side comic by Gary Larson (see below). While high-paid management consultants and MBAs (the “gifted”) conjure complicated methodologies and solutions, Tom sees the simple solutions in front of us and asks why someone isn’t pulling the door open.

Thanks Tom.
For inspiring us to a higher form of leadership.
For reminding us that we are all people, even when we’re at work.
For revealing the simplicity of excellence.

And, most of all, for being a masterful dealer of hope.

Confidence and the Power of Transformational Leaders

Photo by lucas huffman on Unsplash

Creative leadership is more than the sum of both characteristics: be creative + hold a leadership role. That focuses on an individual’s capacity. Effective creative leaders encourage and inspire others to be more creative. Not only is this important, according to Tom and David Kelley from the design firm IDEO, it is greatly needed. They cited an IBM study that found only 25 percent of individuals feel that they’re living up to their creative potential. The authors’ response? “That’s a lot of wasted talent.”

Tom and David claim everyone has creative potential, but they lack confidence in their creative abilities. They found this troubling since, “our creative energy is one of our most precious resources.” Their book, Creative Confidence show how we can regain that potential and leverage our individual and collective talent.

What we’ve found is that we don’t have to generate creativity from scratch. We just need to help people rediscover what they already have: the capacity to imagine or build upon new-to-the world ideas. But the real value of creativity doesn’t emerge until you are brave enough to act on those ideas. That combination of thought and action defines creative confidence: the ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out.
– David Kelley and Tom Kelley, Creative Confidence

Building our creative confidence as individuals is a great first step.

But imagine the impact if leaders everywhere were able to cultivate that same creative confidence in our people. 

That is transformational leadership.

Researcher Kathrin Rosing describes transformational leadership as “leadership behavior that is able to motivate followers to transcend beyond their own self-interests.”

Moreover, transformational leaders boost their followers’ confidence that they are able to successfully engage in creative behaviors by showing individual support and encouragement… transformational leaders inspire followers to feel more creative and to feel more confident to be creative… followers see more meaning and value in their work and feel more confident… psychological empowerment in turn fosters creativity as it provides the necessary autonomy for engaging in creativity.
– Kathrin Rosing, Transformational leadership and follower creativity: A review of underlying mechanisms and boundary conditions

I can see how this has played out in my own experiences.

I wish I could say that I have always been this kind of transformational leader, but I haven’t. I remember when I was a partner in an ad agency. I was more concerned with my own creativity than I was with the untapped potential of those who reported to me. My mentality was backwards. I saw them as a means to support my creative output and accomplishments. Instead, I needed to focus on SERVING THEM to give them the confidence they needed to engage more in their projects and bring their full creative capacity.

I have also been in environments where leadership did not inspire creative confidence. Some leaders were micromanagers, not empowering workers or giving us any sense of autonomy to make decisions, let alone bring creative ideas. Other leaders were less hands-on, but their decision-making process created instability. They would state a desired goal that would set people into motion. I would go to work generating ideas and sometimes prototypes, only to find out they had changed their minds on direction and my work was now meaningless.

This is the workplace equivalent of “the football gag” from Peanuts. Lucy pulls the football just before Charlie Brown kicks it and he fails miserably. It leaves Charlie wondering why he trusted Lucy, while she asks why Charlie didn’t kick the ball–even though that part is obvious.


This is the conundrum. We don’t feel like we can trust our leaders. Nobody wants to be Charlie Brown in this scenario. So, leaders spend all their energy trying to give their people enough confidence–possibly false confidence–to try and kick the football again. They wonder why their people are so hard to motivate, but it is obvious to everyone else.

So, what are healthy ways we can instill confidence in others? Dan Rockwell has some ideas in his Leadership Freak blog.

4 ways to fill others with confidence:

  1. Extend trust. Power flows to those you trust. Walk around asking yourself, “How might I trust people in new ways today?”
  2. Train people to declare intention, rather than ask permission. Confident people say, “I intend to ….” Powerless people ask, “What should I do?”
  3. Provide minimum instruction to competent people. Detailed instructions disempower. Explain results, but don’t explain every step to achieve results. (Exemptions to this guidance include issues of safety, harm, and capability.)
  4. Seek suggestions:
    • What options do you see? (Generate three options by asking, “And what else?”)
    • What option would you choose?
    • What’s the next step?

To me, this looks a lot like empowering others. Which is a good start becoming a leader who transforms others… and yourself.

The Future of Creativity, Leadership and You

As you read about creativity and leadership, you may wonder why it matters. Why does it matter in general and to you specifically?

There are some words we use so often and broadly that their meaning gets watered down. That’s the case with “creativity” and “leadership.” Creativity is applied to a child’s finger painting and a masterfully produced movie with a $300 million budget. Many people apply leadership to specific job titles, but don’t see how it applies to an entry level worker.

Here are some helpful definitions of creativity and leadership.

Creative thinking involves imagining familiar things in a new light, digging below the surface to find previously undetected patterns, and finding connections among unrelated phenomena.
Roger von Oech, Expect the Unexpected

Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles.
John Kotter, Leading Change

These definitions help show there is value in creativity and leadership, but in reality are these traits valuable? With the rise of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, human workers need to provide what machines cannot do better. Multiple research sources like Forrester, Gallup and the World Economic Forum, companies like Adobe, Microsoft, Steelcase and IDEO and authors like Richard Florida and Dan Pink have all pointed to an increased demand for creativity and leadership skills in the future.

Here are examples of key findings.

77% of people feel creativity is a critical 21st century job skill.
– Steelcase Creativity and the Future of Work Survey, 2017

Despite the perceived benefits of creativity, 61% of companies do not see their companies as creative.
– Forrester, The Creative Dividend, 2014

There is thus a need for bolder leadership and strategic action within companies and within and across industries…
– World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs

This points to a high demand for a greater supply of creativity and leadership in the future.

But can creativity and leadership be learned?

Some say these attributes are inherent. You are either born with them or not. It appears that opinion is tipping toward these being skills that can be learned.

We need creativity and leadership today.
We expect it will be needed even more in the future.
These are skills that can be learned and developed.

The real question is this:
What are you doing to prepare yourself, and your organization, for this future?

Sparking Change without Burnout

I recently read an HBR article from Stanford professor Sarah A. Soule and IDEO director Bryan Walker entitled Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate. The article is full of great insights for leading a cultural change in order to transform your organization. It pulls lessons learned from movement makers and applies them to business leaders.

I especially appreciated the advice they gave to leaders at the end of the article.

In a movements-based approach to change, a moderate amount of friction is positive. A complete absence of friction probably means that little is actually changing. Look for the places where the movement faces resistance and experiences friction. They often indicate where the dominant organizational design and culture may need to evolve.

The article also recommends leaders not overuse their authority to create change, advising they should do so sparingly.

When you’re striking a match, friction is helpful. But too much pressure can strip the head of the match or break it. The artfulness of leading is knowing how much pressure is just right.

Goldilocks was onto something.

When You’re Helpless and Things Go Wrong

Life doesn’t always go the way we want it. In fact, sometimes it can feel like it rarely does.

Unless you’re a spectacular hypnotist or sorcerer, you can’t control the decisions other people make. You can predict and persuade, but you can’t control others. Sometimes this creates circumstances that are out of our control, and we experience failure.

  • Customers choose your competitor
  • A relationship falls apart
  • Another candidate gets the job or promotion
  • Your child rebels
  • People don’t show up for your event

In situations like this, we can tell ourselves negative stories. Dr. Henry Cloud calls this the death spiral of a leader. In his book Boundaries for Leaders, Dr. Cloud argues that we learn helplessness through the “three P’s.”

We believe our problem is…

  • Personal
    “What ever made me think I could be a leader?” The reason we are stuck is that I am not up to the task. What ever made me think I was good enough to pull this off?”
  • Pervasive
    “It seems like everything I am working on is failing. Nothing is going the way I need it to go.”
  • Permanent
    “It is not going to change.”

Cloud encourages leaders to counter the “three P’s” by observing, logging and refuting.

The way to turn around the three P’s habit is to become aware of your own thinking patterns, first through self-observation, and then by writing these thoughts down in a log, journal, or notebook. Next, review each of the thoughts in the log and identify specific counterarguments and actual facts to refute them, one by one.

While explaining this approach during the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, Dr. Cloud emphasized that life is a movie, not a scene.

“Every great movie has crisis scenes in it. It’s the brains that see it (the crisis) as a scene and start doing the behaviors that end a great movie who win.”

This is where we DO have control. We don’t control the individual scenes, but we do create the narrative those scenes fit into.

We control the editing of our life.

We don’t run the cameras or control the actors, but we take the footage and give it meaning. What happens to us in life is momentary, but the stories we tell ourselves stay with us. Losing a sale, losing a job, losing an entire business (all of which have happened to me personally) do not define your life. They are each a scene.

How you insert them into the movie of your life is up to you.

As Garr Reynolds says on his blog Presentation Zen,

Editors are the unsung heros of film, but if we take a closer look even those of us outside of film can learn valuable lessons from their creative work. Whatever the medium, the key in storytelling is cutting the extraneous and the superfluous, keeping in only what helps tell your story.

We aren’t in control of our circumstances, but we are “ridiculously in charge” of how we tell our story.

  • Observe, log and refute what Dr. Henry Cloud calls the “three P’s.”
  • Realize your circumstances are a “scene” of your life, not the “movie.”
  • Take control of telling your story. Cut the extraneous and superfluous–keep what helps tell your story.

Are We Born into Greatness or Grown into It?

I’ve talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its impact on creativity before. It’s a powerful model that changed the field of psychology. The needs at the bottom have to be met before the needs above it become relevant and accessible.

Patrick Lencioni’s model for 5 Dysfunctions of a team is very similar. Once again, the issues at the bottom of the pyramid have to met first.

In my opinion, the fact that these models have a certain order isn’t their most powerful attribute. I believe what makes these models profound is their assertion that people can grow into greatness. This is also the core of Stanford researcher Carol Dweck’s research on the mindset of learners.

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

—Carol Dweck, Stanford University

On the surface, this can seem simple and obvious, yet we label people–including ourselves–in “fixed” terms.

  • Smart vs Stupid
  • Creative vs Uncreative
  • Organized vs Sloppy
  • Entrepreneurial vs Predictable
  • Charismatic vs Dull
  • Successful vs Unsuccessful

If we understand this, then we stop seeing attributes as an either-or proposition…

… and we start to see everything as building blocks instead. Life becomes more than simply dealing with the hand you were dealt.
It becomes a series of steps toward our desired outcomes.

  • What attributes have you “assigned” to yourself and accepted as a label?
  • What qualities do you admire in others and not see in yourself?
  • If you see yourself as being on a lower level of that attribute, what would be the next level up?
  • What habits can you add to your life that would help you progress in this area?

Getting Unstuck

Understanding the System

As a follow up to yesterday’s post, here is more practical advice from the book UNSTUCK by Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro.

If you’re feeling stuck and wonder what the issue is, the authors suggest looking at the system–instead of focusing on symptoms. A balanced system should look like the model below.

Image © Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro, 2004

In this model, a balanced organization centers around its purpose. Its other elements revolve around the purpose like satellites.

  • Structure and process
  • Metrics and rewards
  • People and interaction
  • Culture
  • Even the almighty strategy

When organizations get stuck, one or more elements is out of balance. Often-times, an organization will center around one of the “satellites.” For example, people in an organization too focused on structure and process can begin to wonder where all the fun went. While those in a company without structure and process can easily feel overwhelmed.

Some may think defining and communicating the company’s purpose seems frivolous. When you see it is the center of your organization’s solar system, you understand how all of the elements of the company can become out of balance. This is why Simon Sinek’s message in his TED Talk and book, Start with Why, is so profound.

If your company feels stuck, you may want to get a copy of the book UNSTUCK (it’s out of print, but copies can be found. It gives several tactical options for alleviating the specific imbalance your organization may be stuck in.

If you personally feel stuck, you might check out the UNSTUCK website. I includes a free app, courses, kits and other materials.