Gonzo Strategy – Business Advice from the Sports Desk
A tribute to Hunter S. Thompson*
In a series of six blogs, I will draw some strategic planning advice from an unusual source: the Gonzo journalism of the late American author, Hunter S. Thompson. Enjoy!
Hell’s Angels (1967). This first major book by Hunter S. Thompson recounted his time travelling with the Hell’s Angel motorcycle gang well before such gangs became a global crime phenomenon. Thompson was himself a passionate motorbike rider. There is a vital societal lesson contained in this book and one that translates to business strategy. That is, see things for what they are, not what populist bias and the consensus of the time tells you. US Society initially created the now common spectre of outlaw motorcycle gangs more than the early Hell’s Angels ever did.
The gang in its earliest form was made up of singularly unimpressive ‘down and outs’ of limited abilities, who lived to ride and party. Volatile, self-centred and unorganised, they were more of a threat to themselves than anyone else. At the end of the book they were perceived as one of the most feared threats to US society, yet not much had changed in reality.
Thompson tells us that films such as Rebel without a Cause created a false perception of the ruthlessness and threat that bikers posed. Local police forces and politicians overreacted when a gang travelled through their counties, many times using the politics of fear for electoral gain. Moreover, the emerging alternate lifestyle movement (fellow American novelist Ken Kesey in particular), also saw bikers as part of the alternate culture revolution. It was credibility gained through hollow perception.
The lesson for any strategic planner is to test and challenge biases and perceptions: is this a strength, is a competitor a threat, or in reality a point of synergy? As my mentor has said, ‘a rising tide floats all boats’. If you reinforce bias during a planning process, you run the risk of turning minor issues and challenges into major problems, wasting resources, or worse creating energy sapping confrontations in the market place. Test and challenge norms and assumptions. Many will be valid, but some I can guarantee will not be. Fight against, ‘well that is the way we have always done it’.
Thompson stopped riding with the gang after being savagely beaten during a drinking session for a triviality. There is sub-theme in the book about testing the limits of human experience (what Thompson calls ‘going to the edge’), but his overwhelming message is: don’t create your own demons, see things for what they are, and deal with them.
*Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author, and the founder of the Gonzo journalism movement. Written without objectivity, this type of journalism placed the writer as a central figure and even a participant in the events of the narrative. British novelist, Hari Kunzru wrote that ’the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him’. Though a handful of scholars have written of Thompson’s talent and importance, his wild lifestyle and celebrity have overshadowed his work in the eyes of most of the critical world.
Jason Thomas is the Founder of de Montaigne Strategic Planning, which provides robust strategic planning and training services to small to medium-sized enterprises, not-for-profit organisations and government departments.
He has over 30 years’ experience in senior leadership, operational and planning roles across the military, public and private sectors. In addition, Jason holds numerous degrees and qualifications including Gold Mastery Certification with the Haines Centre for Strategic Management.