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EXCELLENCE? Always? Yes!

I have some fear that you'll read this and accuse me of playing "holier than thou"-the good news is that I know you'll let me know if that's the case. I went to town earlier today to do some errands-including, yes, getting yet another brushcutting tool.

On the way, I was delayed by a crew doing some roadside tree trimming. One lane of VT Route 30 was closed-and there was, naturally, a Flagman at each end of the work area.

As is my habit ("Tom being Tom" is Susan's term for it), I waved to the flagman-not some big full-body "Hiya," just a little flick of the wrist. It ain't a great job, and a dollop of recognition can't hurt-right?

The guy on the front end waved back-a similar flick of the wrist, and perhaps a little nod. But as I approached the other end, I almost cringed. The Flagman there had as sour-grim an expression as I've seen in a long time. Not aggressively, attack-dog sour, just sour-sour. (Presumably you know what I mean.) I waved anyway, but as expected received no response whatsoever.

Maybe Flagman #2 was fired from a two-hundred-thou-a-year job at Lehman. Maybe Wal*Mart laid him off. Maybe his wife is pissed off at him. Maybe he has a nasty head cold. Any of those things is possible, or a hundred others-plus the job's not exactly a major career step.

Or is it?

(More accurately, could it be?)

I use a lot of quotes in my speeches; but the fact is that I commit very few to memory. But one that is etched indelibly into my synapses comes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

"If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well."

I'm sure there are multiple interpretations of this, and for awhile I had a touch of trouble with the quote: Did it mean that our street sweeper should aspire to no more than street sweeping? I decided not necessarily. To my mind, the quote means that whatever you are doing for whatever reason can be (ought to be, per Dr. King) turned to a Work of High Art and Fullblown Commitment.

I remember, on a visit to Rome at Easter a couple of years ago, racing at one point to catch a glimpse of a world-famous (!!-true) cop who stood in the center of a mid-city roundabout directing traffic with the same style-vigor-artistry with which Leonard Bernstein conducted a symphony orchestra or John Madden coached from the football sidelines.

It's a truism, as I see it, that a Flagman's job, per Dr. King and our Grand Roman Traffic-circle Cop, could indeed be turned into High Art. Or at least the work could be performed with a positive-vigorous-engaged attitude.

My sour Flagman made me sad-mostly for him, but it also put a wee dent in my day. These are troubled economic times. Some readers are doubtless doing something "less" than they were a year ago-perhaps both their ego and wallet have been dented.

But no one but no one but no one can rob you of your attitude. It's all yours to shape and put on parade.

Maybe tough times make it tough to sport a grin. But tough times are especially good times (!!!) to Stand Out for your Spirit & Determination & Engagement & Comradeship.

Flagman, 7-11 clerk, or bank teller, there's always a promotion right around the corner-or at least something close to a short-term employment guarantee-if you live by the words of Martin Luther King. And if the great attitude is still not enough, you retain your self-respect-which is no small thing.

The bastids can't steal your attitude!

(No matter how hard they may advertently or inadvertently try.)

Your attitude is all yours!

Are you Flagman #2?

Or Dr. King's street sweeper?

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By Tom Peters

About the Author: Tom Peters

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Tom & Bob Waterman coauthored In Search of Excellence in 1982; the book was named by NPR (in 1999) as one of the "Top Three Business Books of the Century," and ranked as the "greatest business book of all time" in a poll by Britain's Bloomsbury Publishing (2002). Tom followed Search with a string of international bestsellers: A Passion for Excellence (1985, with Nancy Austin), Thriving on Chaos (1987), Liberation Management (1992: acclaimed as the "Management Book of the Decade" for the '90s), The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations (1993), The Pursuit of WOW! (1994); The Circle of Innovation: You Can't Shrink Your Way to Greatness (1997); and in 1999 a series of books on Reinventing Work: The Brand You50, The Project50 and The Professional Service Firm50. In 2003 Tom and publisher Dorling Kindersley released Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age; the revolutionary book, an immediate No.1 international best seller, aims to do no less than reinvent the business book through vibrant, energetic presentation of critical ideas.
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