This summer, as always, reading topped my vacation agenda. "Too Far From Home" by Paul Bowles (best known for the movie version of his novel "The Sheltering Sky") and "The Collected Stories" by Southerner Reynolds Price headed my fiction selections. "The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay" by Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham led the nonfiction pack.
These books emphasize the centerpiece of the human drama: people trapped by circumstance.
Bowles' setting is usually the English-speaking community in Morocco; his characters are enmeshed in waking nightmares. Price evokes the South's clinging humidity; tiny events in ordinary lives reveal larger tragedies and, infrequently, triumphs. Lapham paints a sorry picture of decaying democracy: Elites make the rules, while the rest of us sit idly by. But the elite life is no picnic, either; to maintain their precarious perches, most pass their days on their knees courting favor with our secular princes and princesses.
But what's this have to do with making and selling widgets?
The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed the results of faddish management programs. A few succeed. A few are outright disasters. Most make no mark one way or the other.
Why does TQM (total quality management) often draw scorn (or yawns)? And self-managed teams often flounder on the rocks of ceaseless squabbles and, ultimately, indifference?
CEOs, supervisors and the average line worker alike are snared in the messy, mortal world Bowles, Price and Lapham grasp so thoroughly -- a world that management program designers blithely ignore.
A nurse friend snickers at TQM and pillories me for even tepidly supporting it. She's gone to a half-dozen TQM seminars in the past two years, sat on several quality task forces, and attended innumerable team meetings. She's a bit cynical (what sane adult isn't?), but I understand her distrust of higher-ups.
They're more interested in tallying meeting attendance figures (to tout to their bosses) than making things better for patients, she insists.
Another pal works in a building-materials factory. He and I sip a brew or two every six months -- and he regales me with the latest "empowerment" efforts his company has launched (sometimes evoking my name as guiding spirit).
He's no more than ordinarily cynical, either; but he's fed up to his eyebrows with a dozen flag-waving program starts -- and no trace of serious commitment on the part of his supervisors. "Brown-nosers then, brown-nosers now, brown-nosers tomorrow," he sneers into his brew.
Despite the fact that most new programs come a cropper, chirpy management gurus continue to spin out new "must-do" techniques. ("Forget TQM, my friends . . . re-engineering is it.") And peddle them, mostly, to the suspecting: bosses who know better, but are either too frazzled to resist the latest sales pitch or determined to appear with-it to their bosses.
Is there any way out of this grim box? Mostly, no. Work is not joy for the average hotel housekeeper in Price's South, Lapham's Manhattan -- or Frankfurt or Seoul or Chicago. And all you have to do is take one quick look at Japan's glassy-eyed salary men, stumbling into or out of Tokyo subway entrances at 8 p.m. or 8 a.m., to know that middle management is no lark there, any more than in America or England or Germany.
Is this a long introduction to my resignation from this column? Not necessarily.
Bowles et al. have given me a boost. They've reminded me to look twice, then twice more, at all the clever schemes that will be part of the next 12 months' parade.
The best chiefs hate the management fads. They're a little skeptical (or more), political as hell (you don't get to the top with unbent scruples) -- and passionate to a fault (the true basis for unstinting quality) and humane to the core (the wellspring of empowerment beyond the balloons and badges).
Workers who rise above the fray are about the same -- cynical as all get out (you gotta be to survive the average day in the average outfit), but engaged and caring. No matter what kind of jerks their bosses are, they put out; for them it's more fun to go full-bore and thumb their noses openly at hovering bureaucratic midgets than to hunker down and waste their best shots on the bartender, their spouses or their bowling buddies.
One other last-minute addition to my vacation pile, "Teach Yourself to be a Madman: Memoirs of a Young Russian Soldier" by Valentin Papadin, hooked me with this epigraph by the philosopher Blaise Pascal:
"Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness."
That's about right, and I plan to pin it up above my desk. Perhaps it'll remind me that all institutions are ultimately flawed human inventions. Translation: Beware the next guru (management or other) who passes our way.
(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801;  420-8200.)