You Have No Limits*
How many times have I heard experts that said such and such can’t be done? It must have been a million times. Most recently we have former presidential candidate, now President Trump. The experts in both parties and I don’t know how many news commentators said the same thing: It will never happen. Well, it did. But we don’t need to look only at the Republicans. It was only a little over eight years ago, that I was a guest on the Presidential Yacht “Sequoya” for a cruise up the Potomac River. During the cruise, I had a discussion with Democratic Congresswoman and former Ambassador to Micronesia, Diane Watson about this new man, Barack Obama. Not being particularly knowledgeable about politics, but being a Republican, I had heard little previously about him. Ambassador Watson told me “Barack Obama is a wonderful man, and he’ll be president one year, but not this year. This is Hillary’s year.” I can think of few that gave either Obama or Trump much of a chance, Yet, both succeeded in reaching their goals against incredible odds and countless naysayers. If either believed in limits based on anything, I doubt whether either would have become a candidate, much less get elected.
Sinatra had it Right
The point has to do with an old Frank Sinatra song relating to animals and rubber tree plants called “High Hopes.” The song details two scenarios where first an ant and then a ram reach seemingly impossible goals. First, an ant moves a rubber tree all by itself, then a ram also operating solo destroys a billion-dollar dam. These impossible goals are achieved because of the power and strength of the goals and the high hopes of the main characters. As reported in the words of the song: “Whoops! There goes another rubber tree plant.”
Drucker supported this idea. Even past failure does not mean future failure and does not mean that you or anyone else has reached any limit of competency in their careers. The clear lesson is that people have no limits and this was Drucker’s argument against the once popular preposition from Professor Lawrence J. Peter that people rose to their limits of competency and no further. You have no limit in achieving any particular goal you set for yourself within physical limits. If you jump off a building with the intent of flying, you’re not going to achieve that goal. Of course, there are body suits available today through which those who would dare jump out of airplanes or other great heights without a parachute, and do so successfully. However, the body suit enables them to keep within physical laws.
Peter (Drucker, that is) said “No!”
Other than Drucker’s strong feeling of the power and importance of people for an organization, Drucker objected to The Peter Principle on several other grounds. He believed that the whole idea was overly simplistic. He didn’t contest the fact that many failed as they moved into successively higher levels of an organization. He thought that this was a tremendous waste, much of which could be avoided by the individual himself through proper training of his own or with the help of the organization. He agreed with Lawrence Peter that more thoughtful placement and promotion could reduce this unwelcome phenomenon. However, he also felt that as those who worked more with their minds, what Drucker called “knowledge workers,” became more important in the workforce, increasing numbers of managers were likely to be placed into positions in which they failed to perform adequately in specific situations due to developing technology. In other words, so long as the work was purely physical, it was fairly easy to measure performance, and physical skills were easier to move to other jobs demanding primarily physical inputs. A ditch digger dug ditches and could do so adequately in a variety of situations. But the transfer of knowledge-working skills to new assignments is at times much more challenging and nothing guarantees success or foretells failure. In some cases, past failures lead to future success.
Big Past Failures Can Lead to Future Big Success
Rowland Hussey Macy studied business, graduated, and then opened a retail store. It failed. He started another. It failed too. This happened four times, and he failed at each attempt. If he considered these limits and abandoned further work, we would have never heard of him. However, Macy’s fifth attempt did succeed even though on the first day his efforts brought in only $11.08 in sales. Still, Macy died a wealthy man. More than a hundred and fifty years later, Macy’s store still exists and even though suffering like other retailers during the recession, it still has almost 800 stores and recently announced it was going to hire 85,000 seasonable workers for the coming holidays. Not too bad a legacy for someone who had seemed incompetent four times before his overwhelming success.
Winston Churchill should have abandoned politics. Some still argue the point, and Churchill himself maintained that his biggest failure would have been worth the cost in resources and human flesh if the WWI Allies had maintained the fight just a little bit longer. He maintained that final success would have shortened the war and saved a million casualties.
As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill succeeded in convincing the British War Cabinet to undertake the biggest allied disaster of the war, the Dardanelles Campaign, including an allied landing at Gallipoli. This resulted in the worst allied defeat of the entire conflict, with over 200,000 casualties. Churchill was forced to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty and he was forced into a much lower position as a front-line officer. Once having commanded admirals, generals, and field marshals as First Lord, he served in the front lines in France as a lieutenant colonel. He shared all dangers. His hut mate in the trenches was blown apart during an artillery barrage. Churchill himself became a successful combat officer and survived the war. But he failed miserably in his top job as Sea Lord.
Yet the same man, with much higher responsibilities, again, as Prime Minister during World War II saved England and possibly the world during almost a year that the British stood alone against Hitler and his minions. Moreover, this one-time ‘incompetent’ is now considered the greatest British political figure of the 20th century, and maybe of all time. Clearly, he had no limits.
Politicians are obvious examples confirming my point. Ronald Reagan was defeated twice as Republican nominee, finally succeeding in becoming nominee and President of the United States as well on his third attempt. Abraham Lincoln failed at just about everything. He failed in business, ran for the Illinois State Legislature and was defeated, went into business again and went bankrupt, ran for Speaker and was defeated, was defeated in a nomination to Congress, was rejected for an appointment for the U.S. Land Office, was defeated in a U.S. Senate race, and two years later defeated again in a nomination for Vice President. Then in the 1860’s he became our 16th President and saved the Union. To the best of my knowledge not even his detractors, and certainly not historians, call him incompetent. No limits!
Certainly, one of the most hierarchal of organizations is the military. But did you know that none other than General Colin Powell would have easily been classified as having risen to his level of incompetency and had limits.. As “a one-star,” brigadier general he had displeased his boss at a critical time and made two serious mistakes. Thus, his two-star boss gave him a mediocre effectiveness report. Since only 50% of brigadier generals went on to promotion to two-stars (major general) Powell was certain that he knew which 50% he would be in. His career would have been at an end. Then if that weren’t enough, it was felt that he may have mishandled a case of sexual harassment. In his own words, he questioned himself: Was this “strike three” (as in three strikes and you’re out)? Boy was he showing up as an incompetent! However, he knew that he had no limits.
Powell’s thirty-year previous record of outstanding performance and accomplishments earned him his second star. And of course, later he was promoted to three and then four star positions and eventually he became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. military’s highest ranking officer.
*Adapted from Peter Drucker on Consulting (LID, 1916)