Motivational speaker L Vaughan Spencer is inspired by the Laotian guru Sooti-n-Tsu. Now back in Britain, the so-called Warrior of Watford has hit the road with his tribal drums and his unique management creed. Is he for real? asks Neil Mullarkey.
RELEASE: YOUR INNER SUCCEEDER
by Neil Mullarkey
These days, the motivational speaker circuit is jam-packed with runners and riders, all jostling for position. Every Arctic, jungle or desert explorer, the odd First Division football manager and a smattering of ex-England rugby captains have all created a sideline in addressing business audiences on the short route to success. But who are these people at the sharp end of the motivation game? Those who actually do it for a living rather than as an after-dinner speaking moonlighter?
One relatively new practitioner on the British circuit is L Vaughan Spencer.
Spencer may be freshly arrived in the UK but he is well known in North America, where he spent 10 years building a motivational business that even included a late-night TV chat show. A couple of years ago after some personal and business problems across the pond, Spencer returned to his roots and he now holds his weekend workshops regularly at the Ramada Jarvis hotel in Watford, with its Sebastian Coe Health Club.
Vaughan's is a high-energy performance with the air of a preacher commanding an old-style revivalist meeting. Indeed, with his unfashionable ponytail and gold waistcoat, there is much about Spencer that is curiously old-school. He comes onto the stage to Axel F by Harold Faltermeyer and declares: 'I'm already sensing that something very special is going to happen tonight ... I sense a lot of energy here tonight.
Psychic energy ... Breathe it in. Mmmm. Always remember to breathe. Sometimes we forget, don't we?' Some members of the audience laugh nervously.
Every motivator needs a catchphrase and Spencer's is the direct and childishly simple: 'Don't be needy, be succeedy.' His whole pitch is built around The Succeeder persona, which comes complete with a web site, www.the succeeder.com.
'What about the Romans?' asks Spencer, by now in full flow. 'Julius Caesar was an early Succeeder. Remember his catch phrase? Veni, vidi, succeedi ... I came, I saw, I succeeded. So I'm a Succeeder in a long line of Succeeders. Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Tim Henman and Phil Collins - all of whom undoubtedly used my methods.'
Along the way, Spencer has gathered many admirers, mostly from across the Atlantic; one American fan, Chuck Schneider, has described Spencer as 'the Tom Peters of the Britney generation'. And that is not all Spencer claims to be. He is also variously the Angel of Change, the Barefoot Motivator, the Bad Boy of Business, even the Warrior of Watford.
Like many, Spencer draws heavily on Eastern philosophy and custom in his repertoire. He is especially influenced by the writings of the ancient Laotian military leader and philosopher Sooti-n-Tsu. 'That guy had some true insights into the way it is. It was Tsu who said: 'To make your people scale the mountain, lead them down the hill - from behind.''
It is not just the East that inspires him. L Vaughan Spencer is awesomely eclectic in his influences, drawing on tribal drumming, Shamanism, Native American consciousness and even colour therapy. Not that he is content simply with the alternative portfolio of his repertoire. Spencer is also into Western management theory and how to improve it. For example, he has patented the concept of 720-degree feedback - 'Like 360-degree feedback only more' is how he explains it.
He has read the complete works of Daniel Goleman, too, but is not sure the American is on the right track. 'I think you'll find that Daniel still has some way to go before he discovers the real truth: it's not EQ but SQ - the Succeeder Quotient.'
Spencer has a particular beef with failure - a concept with which he has no truck, although he is coy when asked about his own setbacks.
'Let me tell you a story,' he urges. 'There was once a young man. He had set up seven highly successful businesses. But he felt that there was more to life. He went and lived with a tribe in Borneo and discovered that they have no word for failure. And, for these people, there is indeed no such thing as failure.
'He then went to live in the Andes with the mountain tribes of Peru and found that they have no translation for 'logistics' or 'trading while insolvent'. But they do have 16 words for chopping wood and five words for making love. Those mountain people of Peru have a simple philosophy concerning hunting which I now apply to business strategy and to personal relationships. Their motto is that you need a big arrow to kill a big donkey.'
But does all this actually work? Where is the proof? There may be a buzz of enthusiasm among a workforce while the speaker is on the platform, but by the time they are all back at work all they have left is a warm, fuzzy feeling that will not change anything.
This kind of scepticism is uneasily received by Spencer, who abhors all negativity. 'Look. A couple of years ago I worked with a logging company in Vancouver. I took them into the wild on a team-building weekend. There was deep bonding - we embraced bushes and we made motivational muffins. Then I spent two days alone with the CEO - without sleep or food or clothes. We wrapped ourselves in seaweed. We role-played dozens of Succeeder scenarios around a camp fire. Well, that man e-mailed me this morning. And you know what? Turnover is up 76%. Profits are up 15%. Staff turnover is way down to minus 11%. People who left are asking to come back. Now that is proof. What I do is powerful stuff.'
Management Today - April 2003