_ On November 27, 1906 escape artist Harry Houdini had himself put in manacles, elbow irons, and two sets of handcuffs before being locked in an iron-weighted wooden trunk that was sealed shut and fastened with iron bonds. At a signal from his assistant, the trunk was lowered from the Belle Isle Bridge into the freezing Detroit River. From ferry boats that bobbed along the river, an eager press corps watched, along with thousands of spectators, as the sealed trunk stayed submerged beneath the icy waters for more than fifteen minutes after which they saw Houdini emerge, now in dry clothes, once again having defied the odds for serious injury, perhaps even death.
___ Much has been written about the extraordinary feats of Harry Houdini: How he escaped from handcuffs and leg irons suspended high above city streets. How he extricated himself from bank vaults, the prison cells of notorious criminals and from entire prisons, themselves. How he had himself lashed against the open barrel of a cannon with a time fuse and vowed to free himself or be “blown to Kingdom Come.” How he consented to be shackled, then buried alive in a sealed coffin under six feet of earth and clawed his way back from the grave. Devotees of magic have long discussed how he managed to perform these feats. Biographers have probed the personal issues that drove him to do it in the first place. Yet, little attention has been paid to the cultural aspect of his career and what lessons it might teach us about escaping the corporate “box”.
___ In order to understand the corporate “box” of today, we would do well to examine the period of Houdini’s greatest success. Born the son of an itinerant Rabbi, Erik Weisz’s first escape was from poverty. In one of his early magic tricks, Houdini’s wife Bess would disappear from a wooden cabinet and later reappear, having metamorphosed into Harry himself. But his most important metamorphosis was to transform himself from Erik Weisz (later Weiss), a struggling factory worker, into Harry Houdini, “Great Self Liberator of the Age.” Escape for Houdini, then, became more than just “getting away”. It was a metaphor for transformation from weakness to strength, from anonymity to heroism, from the confinement of modern life to the gaining of freedom.
___ Consider the fact that at the time of Houdini’s birth, clerical workers were less than 1% of the workforce. By 1900 their ranks had swelled to 3% and nearly 5% by 1910. During that same period, titanic corporation arose with incredible swiftness: Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, American Telephone and Telegraph and Pennsylvania Railroad to name a few. Through intense mechanization, division of labor and ‘scientific management’, industrialists endeavored to departmentalize all aspects of production and to reduce workers’ bodies to components of a great machine. In 1911, Henry Ford articulated his vision of maximum industrial efficiency declaring, “In the past, the man has been first; in the future, the system must always be first.”
___ Houdini appealed to people’s hunger for miracles in a disenchanted world. He brilliantly dramatized the manifold challenges to individual freedom giving them tangible shape. By demonstrating the isolated man’s ability to confront and defeat the most palpable threats to his body, he became a powerful symbol of individual resistance to intimidation and domination in other spheres.
___ Turning this war for self liberation to our own times of “mandatory productivity gains”, “fully-integrated computerization”, “bottom-line orientation” and “globalization”, there is much to learn from Houdini about the art of escaping the corporate “box”. In 2002, with top-down management styles more in vogue than ever, it is all too easy to cast aside the lessons for middle managers taught by Tom Peters’ In Search Of Excellence and fall victim to a management style of simply “doing what I’m told”, rather than contributing, innovating and continuously improving. Still, even as Houdini battled and beat the confines of turn-of-the-century America, we too must force our own one-man revolutions. It will take courage and daring, but in our own way each of us must become magicians challenging our people to be better, not just more productive; living the principles that our own sense of decency tell us will perpetuate the organization successfully into the future, and becoming crusaders for the preservation of stakeholder value in addition to the creation of short term shareholder wealth.
The corporate “box” may be imposed upon us, but most often it is self constructed and our shackles are imagined owing to lack of confidence, or imagination, or assumed positional authority. As often as not, our perceived constraints exist because we allow them to be put on us without questioning, or even understanding what has happened.
___ What follows, then, are Houdini’s secrets. Read them carefully and you, too, may become the Great Self-Liberator of Our Age!
Houdini Secret #1, COURAGE
___ In the case of young Erik Weiss, there occurred by calculated decision a genuine metamorphosis. Starting out as the permanent witness to Rabbi Weiss’ limitations, and being the entrapped son of a destitute widow, he shrewdly re-invented himself to become the “Eternal Evader…master magician, fearless defier of death!” The superlatives pour forth like a river whose source must emanate from courage based upon mastery of fear. Instead of being constrained by self-doubt, one must find liberation through fearlessness. This is not to say that fear ceases to exist, but rather that it is converted to professional advantage. When asked by a reporter, ‘What was the best piece of advice your father gave you?’ Houdini’s response was significant, “You’re old a lot longer than you’re young,” he answered. Herein lies a truth about Houdini and, perhaps, about ourselves.
___ As a young man he understood what many fail to recognize in a long lifetime: Life does not go on forever. The window of opportunity for success and self-fulfillment is smaller than we realize. In a study done by a team of Georgetown University psychologist among terminally ill patients the most common answer to the question, “What would you have done differently, if you could live life over again?” was “Take more risks.”
___ The Great Houdini took risks of two kinds. The first was risk to body and limb. The second, though subtle, was certainly more pervasive as he, came eye to eye with failure and humiliation, almost on a daily basis. Interestingly, Houdini was never viewed as impertinent. He respected himself, his audience, and even the societal institutions he frequently turned the tables upon. “It has been my good fortune,” he once wrote, “to meet personally and converse with the chiefs of police and detectives in all of the great cities of the world…I admire their work as many of them admire mine.”
___ It was Houdini’s unique ability to be brash, and yet ultimately respectful that allowed him to achieve what was his greatest escape – to gravitate from societal outlaw to member of society’s elite. At the height of his fame, ministers preached on ‘Life’s Straightjackets,’ on ‘Houdini and the Art of Escaping the Devil’s Grip,’ or against drink: ‘When whiskey ties you up you STAY tied.’ After seeing him do the Chinese Water Torture Cell, Woodrow Wilson said to him, “I envy your ability of escaping out of tight places. Sometimes I wish I were able to do the same.”
___ Houdini had mastered fear of darkness, water, airless enclosures, dizzying heights and even death, but more than any other figure of his day, he agonizingly and publicly put himself on the brink of failure; an act of courage and defiance that was at the center of his success.
CEO Gordon Bethune took a number of courageous stands in the turn-around of Continental Airlines. Despite the fact that revenues were plummeting, he chose to eliminate dozens of point-to-point routes and did it with the help of Bonnie Reite, an employee who ran their sales and distribution department. “The suggestions came as a result of Continental’s ‘open-door’ policy,” Bethune observed. “With fewer seats out there we were able to see where our prices were ridiculously low, and we raised our prices. Suddenly, we were flying fewer planes, but making more money.” Not only did Ms. Reite have the courage to take her plans directly to the CEO, but also Bethune respected his employees enough to listen, then made courageous decisions based on that good advice.
___ In business, as in magic, the first secret to escaping the corporate “box” is courage mixed, paradoxically, with mutual respect.
Houdini Secret #2, SELF-DISCIPLINE AND STUDY
___ “I practice card tricks seven or eight hours a day,” Houdini once told a reporter from the Denver Times, “as consistently as a Paderewski at the piano.” What he left out was the fact that additionally he challenged himself through self discipline and study to become one of the strongest men in the world, a master locksmith, first class inventor, author, showman and swimmer capable of holding his breath underwater for nearly five full minutes.
___ Houdini’s most compelling stage escape, the “Chinese Water Torture Cell” depended on conscientious study of both risk and possibility. He began by displaying on stage an imposing metal-lined mahogany cabinet, less than six feet high and less than three feet square, with an inch-thick plate-glass window in front. He solemnly explained its features and how he would attempt to escape under seemingly impossible conditions: Locked upside down inside, his ankles shackled, and completely immersed in water. Slowly and dramatically, he was hoisted aloft and lowered headfirst into the cell, his entire body visible underwater through the glass. Assistants locked the frame in place, fastened the trunk with padlocked steel bands, and then curtained off the entire cabinet from view. A minute passed, then two and three. Spectators invited to try to hold their breath had long since given up; some fainted. Then, suddenly, Houdini thrust the curtain aside and strode forward, dripping wet and smiling triumphantly. Yet, when Houdini entered his contraption and after he escaped, the audience would see no signs of panic, rage or terror in his face. His composure, his glacial self-control, was part of the rigor of his act.
___ The only way for someone to be genuinely well grounded is to arrive at what Quality guru Edwards Demming calls “deep understanding”. One may attempt to master one’s innermost fears, but the confidence necessary to be successful in that undertaking can only be derived from a deep knowledge of oneself and the work that one chooses.
Every facet of Honda of America’s BP program for global competitiveness is an example of this. Originally begun in Japan in 1979, it is an offspring of Demming’s post-World War II “Quality Circles”. Honda’s Best Position, Productivity, Product, Price and Partners concept is based on four major tenets, all derived from study and discipline: Study the Customer, Study the Competition, Study the Process, Develop your Plan and have the Organizational Discipline to act.
___ Honda’s founder, Soichiro Honda, once said, “Analysis with action is a lethal weapon; action without analysis or analysis without action is worthless.”
Editors note: This article is Part 1 of a two part series. The second part of this article will be presented in our Jan/Feb 2015 issue.