Tom Peters: A Leadership Guru Ahead of His Time

In: BlogDate: Jun 29, 2021By: Henry Stewart

Tom Peters is the ultimate management guru. Thinkers50, the list of the top 50 management thinkers, has rated him in the top 10 in multiple years and awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award, one of only six people to achieve the honour, in 2017.

"Charismatic, passionate, and insightful, Tom virtually invented the modern thought leadership industry," explained Thinkers50 co-founder Des Dearlove. "He co-authored In Search of Excellence, which helped create the business book industry."

Find out more about Tom Peters in this blog by Henry Stewart.

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In Search of Excellence brought management to light

In Search of Excellence sold 4.5 million copies and brought business literature to a much wider audience. By using case studies of real companies, it brought management to light. And, above all, it was focused on people over strategy.

One example was the idea of MBWA, Management By Wandering Around, taken from Hewlett Packard. The idea that managers should get out of their corner offices and find out what their people were doing was a revolutionary idea.

Tom summarises In Search of Excellence in six words: "Soft is hard. Hard is soft." What is seen as soft (people relationship, culture) is the real hard and important stuff. What is seen as hard (plans, numbers, strategy) is the actual soft stuff.

A man ahead of his time

I owe a great debt to Tom. As I was setting up Happy 34 years ago, one of the highlights of the week was reading his weekly column in the Observer (published from 1985 to 1993).

Looking back at those articles on, you find a man ahead of his time.

In May 1986 he argued that even multinational companies should only have five layers of management: "that's the number of layers the Catholic Church makes do with to efficiently oversee 800 million members."

For any single facility he argued there should be three layers at most: "Structure kills. Good intentions and brilliant proposals will be dead-ended, delayed, sabotaged, massaged to death and revised beyond recognition by the over-layered structures at most large and many mid-sized firms."

Nowadays I promote the idea of self-managing organisations. Back in 1987 Tom argued for creating self-managing teams with one 'supervisor' per 50 or 75 front-line staff. "Everyone on the front line should be a member of a 'business team', with team leadership rotating among members."

Again in 1987 Tom argued that every manager at every level must be retrained to become a listener rather than a talker. "None of the above will amount to beans unless management (especially top management) believes in the virtually unlimited potential of every worker."

And, in 1988, he summed up his philosophy as "Snuff the Bureaucrats, Embrace the Customer, Listen to the Worker."

Tom has long been a strong advocate of gender equality. Over 20 years ago I remember hearing Tom speak about the importance of putting women in the most senior leadership positions, as women make the majority of purchasing decisions in the US, even for cars.

In his latest (and 19th) book, Extreme Humanism, he goes further: "Women are better leaders. Women are better negotiators. Women are better business owners. Women are better investors. Women are better fit for new economy needs."

And, as always, he backs it up with evidence: "International companies with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company in return on equity and other measures. Operating profit was 56 percent higher."

"Excellence is your next email or text message"

In Extreme Humanism Tom returns to the topic of Excellence, which is in the detail:

"Excellence is learning the names and school year of all 14 of your team members' kids.

"Excellence is your next email or text message. (This is sooooo true!!! Give me a collection of a leader's last 10 emails—and I'll give you an accurate assessment of his or her character and effectiveness.)"

And above all, he returns to focusing on your people: "If you want to WOW the customer, first you must WOW the people who WOW the customer."

He quotes the Director Robert Altman: "The role of the Director is to create a space where the actors and actresses can become more than they have ever been before, more than they've dreamed of being."

Tom's definition of a great manager is that they are "literally desperate to have each of their team members succeed and grow and flourish."

As with all his books, and I think I've read at least a dozen of them, read Extreme Humanism and Tom will fire you up and remind you what your role is as a leader.

As he said in a recent tweet: "Your job [as a leader] is growth. Not revenue or profit growth. People growth. Every person working for you should grow dramatically due to your leadership."

Hear more from Tom Peters at the 2021 Happy Workplaces Conference

I will be interviewing Tom Peters for the 2021 Happy Workplaces Conference on 22nd July (and everyone attending will get a copy of Extreme Humanism).

What question would you like to ask him? Let me know on Twitter — @happyhenry.

Other speakers at the conference include leadership gurus David Marquet and Bruce Daisley, as well as Helen Sanderson MBE and Nand Kishore Chaudhary of Jaipur Rugs.

Find out more about the event and book your place

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Next Conference: 2025 Happy Workplaces Conference

Our Happy Workplaces Conference is our biggest event of the year, and we'd love for you to join us on Wednesday 25th June!

Our 2024 event was our first ever hybrid event, and so we hope to run next year's in the same way. We will host up to 50 people face-to-face at Happy's HQ in Aldgate, London, and we can host up to 200 people online via Zoom. However you choose to join, there will be interaction, discussion, space for reflection and opportunities to network with others.

Stay tuned for full details of our speakers for next year's event. As always, our speakers share practical, hands-on ideas that you can implement to create happy and engaged workplaces.

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What can you expect from an online Happy conference?

  • Interactive and engaging - just like our face-to-face events
  • Regular discussions in break out rooms with other attendees
  • Fun activities to keep you involved throughout the day
  • A focus on stories, real-life scenarios and 'nickable' ideas

Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he has built a company which has won multiple awards for some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

Henry was listed in the Guru Radar of the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. "He is one of the thinkers who we believe will shape the future of business," explained list compiler Stuart Crainer.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, the Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

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