Crucifying the business evangelists

by Michael Woodhouse

Evangelists. They're high powered, captivating presenters. Not just motivational, they're inspirational. Passionate. Awesome. I hate them.

They do a lot of harm because – in the main –€“ they are just like those old time tent revival preachers they so much resemble. Phony.

They influence how people feel about themselves and the business decisions they make, with sometimes deeply negative consequences for people's lives.

Irrational enthusiasm

The essential characteristic of business evangelism is enthusiasm. Unstoppable enthusiasm that drives business decisions.

And drives right over doubters. Evangelism is a denial of rational judgement.

Everyone who's worked for a company run by an evangelist knows this scene. It's a management meeting called to "consider" some spectacular change. The CEO has shared his inspiration and to the faithful it appears as a revelation, an almost life-changing, seismic shift of perspective.

You think it's a dog and you can almost hear the sarcasm of the floor staff who'll have to actually do it. It won't work. You imagine yourself saying so, but you can feel your career falling away like sand under your feet when you're standing in an undertow.

The management loyalists wouldn't just disagree with you. They would suddenly recognise you as the energy-sucking, short-sighted Jonah who's been holding them back. With enough passion (and a little creative visualisation) they'll actually see horns sprouting from your head. 

It's an article of religious faith to an evangelist that enough enthusiasm can overcome any obstacle. To disagree with an evangelist is to confess to being a worthless heretic clinging to the wreckage of the past, unable to see into the unknown and too enfeebled to power through mere obstacles and risks.

Evangelism is intolerant and loves the beauty of its own spectacle. It's radical now but conservative once established and static in its vision.


The problem is that evangelists only sit next to God. Unlike Him, they make mistakes. They fail to overcome obstacles and the risks run against them. They send companies broke, cost shareholders their money and employees their jobs.

The dot com industry was heaven on earth for evangelists. They got on TV and in marketing mags, and told the unbelievers who didn't "get it" that they were dinosaurs on a fast track for extinction.

They scorned the accountants who complained it would take centuries for earnings to match their capitalisation, they sucked in cash and burnt it. The virtual "new economy" was triumphant.

Then it crashed: 95% of dot coms went broke when the bubble burst in 2000/2001. The Nasdaq Composite lost 78% of its value. Real money, lost by real people.

For a while the inconvenient reality of catastrophic failure put the business evangelists in retreat.  A decade later however it seems people have forgotten and the evangelists are making a comeback.

Just like a tent revival, you've got to admire the sheer power of their performance.

About accountants

Dull accountant types with boring suits and calculator brains have run most of the big companies in the known universe for most of history. They seem to be at moderately OK at it. Even those few evangelists who succeed in building successful companies eventually end up employing a bundle of them.

The thing about accountants is that they weigh things, like risks and returns. Weigh them dispassionately, based on evidence. Enthusiasm, they find, weighs nothing. Certainly an understatement of the truth, but in a play off between that and evangelism, they win 95 times out of 100 (the percentage of dot coms that failed in the crash).

If you stop dispassionately weighing costs, risks and returns in your business, you will sooner or later risk everything on what is in reality a doomed gamble, based on willful denial of inconvenient facts.

Be passionate about what you do, but dispassionate in choosing what to do. Don't let any evangelists run your decision process.

Being wrong most of the time

If you manage a company, a lot of the decisions you make will turn out to be wrong.

For decisions based on new ideas, you will be wrong most of the time. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take on new ideas – you must –€“ it means that you should adjust your costs and risks to reflect that reality.

Take affordable risks, monitor outcomes and be ready to abandon the idea based on a reckoning of costs and risks. If you're ready to learn and you've managed the risk for survival, failure is the best business teacher.

As an evangelist, failure to risk everything shows lack of commitment, vision and self-belief. In the face of failure you must keep up the burn rate. So most of the time you will go broke. Just as 95% dot coms did.

They're not around to learn from their failures.

Those few evangelists who succeed...

We all know the success stories. Richard Branson, Dick Smith, Bill Gates. Inspirational. Well, actually, they leave me feeling a little weak. I know I can't compare with them. And that's part of the evangelist's message.

The evangelist who flaunts his own success, or who deftly demonstrates the stupidity and lack of vision of your previous life, is really saying, "Look at me, I'm great and you're not, so you should do what I say."

Part of all evangelism is teaching contempt for who you currently are.

It's a tough thing when you run a little family business that struggles every week to meet the wages and every month to make the BAS payment, to be beaten over the head with the glory of someone who makes a million dollars every time he breathes.

Makes you feel kind of inadequate. And that softens you up for the offer of salvation.

Remember this: if you've always paid your debts and kept people employed (even just yourself); if you've never taken shareholders money and not given it back, you're already higher up the business success list than half the business names in the newspapers.

You're better than them.

There is only one...

There is only one Dick Smith in all of Australia. Only one Richard Branson in all Europe. Only one Bill Gates in all hyperspace.  And only one Steve Jobs in the world beyond.

These men are freaks.

Modelling your business life on them is the same as basing your personal life on an assumed Lotto jackpot win.

Distorting reality

The picture the evangelists show us is a carefully selected distortion of business reality. It implies that big-time success is the norm we should all aim for. And forgets to tell us the statistical reality which dictates that most of us are never going to be like that.

Add this to the tyrannical suppression of doubt and dissent and you have: well, any number of tyrannical regimes running states and companies.

When that wonderfully inspirational speaker Bob Ansett suffered the inconvenience of having his business collapse, he was able to continue his speaking career. In other words, his enthusiasm value was ranked higher than his ability to run a business.

For me, enthusiasm is one of the tools in the task of running a successful business – not a higher goal.

Forcing false commitment to a narrow view

The one thing all evangelists seek is commitment. If only you want it bad enough, so it becomes your sole focus, you will succeed.

Actually, this is often true.

If you focus your entire life on making money, denying all other opportunities, forgoing all pleasures and neglecting your family and yourself, you'll probably end up with a pile.

As to whether it will be worth it, whether it's what you want, whether it will be good for you; evangelism doesn't ask these questions. Its view is far narrower.

For me, forced commitment is false commitment. Real commitment is self-grown.

Doubt is good

Most people get along tolerably well with most people, and make a team contribution.

Society –€“ and business –€“ has to cope however with a few individuals who stir trouble everywhere they go; who never fit in.

They are responsible for most of our troubles and most of our progress. Suppressing their dissent limits our future –€“ societies and companies.

Only evangelists have no self-doubt.

The new evangelist: no wings

Many US companies now employ formal "evangelists". Their role is to infect workers with enthusiasm for their boss's latest project, and then they infect the public with enthusiasm for the resultant product.

I attended one of their shows just recently, for new software I was interested in. I confess, I was awed. By the commanding men all in biblical black. The multi-media presentation that many a rock band would die for. The exciting new promises. Many of which were lies. Beautifully told, but lies.

Later when I asked the presenter (via email) about the failure of the product I bought to do the things he'd proclaimed most loudly, he conceded he may have forgotten to mention that, although there was a version of the product for my system, that version was not the same as the version demonstrated.

His enthusiasm however still shone through, unabated.

I suppose I should have taken a cue from the company which employed him, not as a visionary CEO but as an on-road presenter, well out of the management loop.

For the safety of the company they'd clipped his wings, leaving only his enthusiasm.