The S-Word

Survival, Sanity or Simply Success

by Terry Goodwin


I had a successful business career.

At least, looking back over the 50 years from graduation to retirement, I suspect that many people would regard my career as successful.

For myself, I find it difficult to think in terms of success or failure when considering my working life.  The “S” words stands not only for “success” but also for “survival” – and I did a great deal more than merely survive.  I enjoyed my working life.  And if I never actually scaled the heights of other people’s ambitions, I certainly got as high as I wanted while avoiding the headaches and heartaches and peptic ulcers so often associated with top management.

Pathetically, such is the irony of business-people's belief systems, few of my colleagues could accept that I had no aspirations that involved "getting my boss's job".  So I was never entirely trusted by my superiors nor by those on my own executive level.  And I suspect that I was admired by many of my subordinates for precisely the wrong reason - the suspicion that my insouciant attitude with top management was part of a craftily ambitious agenda.

Almost half a century ago I acquired a book by Mark Caine entitled The S Man, and sub-titled A Grammar of Success.  The book itself, I recall, enjoyed a brief succès d'estime on office bookshelves.[1]  It purported to describe a pattern of behaviour attainable by "everyman" that would guarantee success.  Not simply in business, but in every area of life - although memory suggests that it appealed mainly to the business community.  It had a lot of good commonsense.

The one statement that impressed me most was the injunction not to be a slave of your environment but recognise that you have the option to move away if your world is uncomfortable from your existing perspective.  It was advice I took time and again in my business career.  It was advice, too, that I modified by recognising that moving away from a position of comfort, even though it might bring rewards of greater wealth or prestige, would make me a slave of my business environment and I would be happier to stay where I was.  Or, perhaps, organise a move horizontally rather than vertically.  This was, you may be interested to note, ten years before Dr. Laurence J. Peter introduced us to his famous Principle.


In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence


I recall, too, some of Caine's amusing caveats.  When describing the S-Man's acquisition of charm and manners, he warned against becoming a head waiter; when describing the acquisition of geniality, he warned against become a public relations person; when describing success at physical pursuits, he counselled against becoming a gymnast.  Unless, of course, these were your genuine ambitions.

But what if you were actually after your boss's job?  What if you thought "to hell with the Peter Principle"?  How could you best go about it?  You might, for instance, follow the path suggested by Machiavelli to "always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent".  A piece of advice, incidentally, echoed in recent years by another business guru: Tom Peters' In Search of Excellence.

Actually it should be a lot easier to fill your boss's shoes than most lower-level executives imagine.  We only have to consider the mediocrity of so many "captains of industry" to recognise that the business world habitually cries out for fresh blood and new talent.  The problem usually is that the person waiting in the wings, the potential successor, is likely to be even more of a mediocrity.

If you seek the success of a step up the executive ladder, you need to ask yourself a few questions.  Do you think you will be happier doing a higher level job?  Is it the money or prestige that attracts you, or is it because you really think you can do a better job than your predecessor?  Would you be more likely to improve your situation by moving to a completely different company?

Take a look at advice given by and of some people who really did make it to the top of their professions.


Henry Ford: "The question 'Who ought to be boss' is like asking 'Who ought to be the tenor in the quartet?'  Obviously the man who can sing tenor.

Bernard Shaw said: "Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get."

Peter Drucker: "Promotion is not an end in itself.  Rather is it a beginning."

Henry Kaiser said: "I make progress by having people around me who are smarter than I am - and listening to them.  And I assume that everyone is smarter about something than I am."

This was said in other words by Machiavelli: "The first impression that one gets of a ruler and of his brains is from seeing the men he has about him."

Andrew Carnegie: "The true road to pre-eminent success in any line is to make yourself master of that line."


So, before you take that first ambitious step towards a career move that may bring you more grief than satisfaction, make sure you really want it.  Examine your motivation.  Think about the possible consequences.  Consider what you may have to give up and what you will get in exchange . . . and decide whether it is a fair exchange.

Remember the Rudyard Kipling verse:

I had six honest serving men;

They taught me all I knew -

Their names were Where and What and When

And Why and How and Who.


horizontal rule

[1] A search on the Internet reveals that The S Man is still available and quotes from Mark Caine's writings are widespread on the WWW.  Here are some of them.  [Ed.]

Meticulous planning will enable everything a man does to appear spontaneous.

The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.

The successful man doesn't use others, other people use the successful man, for above all the Success is of service.

There is nothing that puts a man more in your debt than that he owes you nothing.

There is nothing wrong in using people. The Success never uses people except to their advantage.

You cannot live on other people's promises, but if you promise others enough, you can live on your own.